Power crisis turns forecaster to verse; 'Please build now,' haiku implores Coal plant closings most serious issue
The Toronto Star
Tue 08 Jun 2004
Page: C3 Section: Business
Byline: Steven Theobald

Dan Rochester, addressing a crowd of nuclear power executives, needed only 17 syllables to express his outlook for Ontario's electricity market.

"Coal power closing. Soon we could be in the dark. Help us. Please build now."

Rochester, the head forecaster at Ontario's Independent Electricity Market Operator, used his haiku to cap a seminar that painted a dire long-term outlook for the province's electricity needs.

The most pressing issue is finding ways to cope with the provincial government's decision to phase out coal-fired generation, which accounts for roughly a quarter of Ontario's total electricity output, by 2007.

Even if coal is not completely eliminated, Ontario will face an electricity shortage by 2009, Rochester said in a presentation yesterday at the Canadian Nuclear Society Conference in Toronto.

The good news is that Ontario should be fine for the next 18 months.

"We're in the best shape we've been in years going into the summer," Rochester said after his speech.

Two nuclear reactors at the Bruce station and one at the Darlington generating station are back on line and TransAlta Corp.'s natural gas-fired generator in Sarnia is coming into service, so demand for electricity should be met, he said.

The provincial government has publicly stated the need to invest as much as $40 billion over the next 15 years to expand generating capacity, Rochester noted.

That certainly got the crowd salivating. After all, they would love to get their hands on some of that cash.

The nuclear power industry's main rivals are electricity producers that use natural gas.

Pierre Charlebois, acting chief nuclear officer at Ontario Power Generation Inc., described the option of extending the life of the Darlington and Pickering A and B nuclear power plants.

He said the public has lost confidence in OPG because of problems refurbishing the Pickering A nuclear generating station. That project has been weighed down by delays and huge cost overruns.

"We need to get more independent third parties driving the nuclear option," Charlebois said.

To bolster trust in nuclear power, the nuclear industry needs to show it has "world-class management," said Andrew Johnson, vice-president of power marketing at Bruce Power.

"We are not there right now," he added.

Building new nuclear capacity may seem like a no-brainer to the nuclear industry, but seemingly compelling alternatives do exist, he suggested.

"The gas lobby is equally persuasive."

Natural gas-fuelled plants have the key advantage of relatively low capital outlays and quick build times - two to three years - to increase capacity, Johnson said.

But the nuclear industry must hammer home the fact that, while less money is needed to build natural gas-fired plants, the fuel costs are much higher than uranium and are very volatile, he said.

North American natural gas reserves are finite, and have a remaining lifespan of about 80 years using optimistic estimates, he added.

Nuclear producers are guilty of over-optimism, he added, citing huge cost overruns and unrealistic time frames for bringing capacity back on line.

The solution, Johnson argued, includes showing that nuclear power can provide lower-cost electricity at a more stable price.

To convince the public, the nuclear industry must offer fixed - and guaranteed - supply prices, Johnson said.

The competition will not ignore the nuclear industry's past mistakes, he added.

"We must make sure we don't, either."