Can we really cut our dependence on coal as an energy source?

bobmcdonald-190.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

Fulfilling a promise to rid Ontario of coal-fired generating stations before the end of 2014, the provincial government has shut down the last unit operating on coal, located in Thunder Bay. It will now be converted to run on biofuel. But will coal remain in the ground indefinitely?

Since 2003, Ontario's closure plan has shut down five generating stations across the province and replaced them with biomass (such as wood pellets), wind, solar, small hydro, geothermal and more efficient natural gas.
This is good news for the atmosphere, as it removes acid rain, smog and toxins, as well as mercury, from surrounding lakes. Ontario is now a model for how a region with a large and diverse population can wean itself off one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet. The government says the closures are the equivalent of removing seven million cars from the roads.

Ontario has an advantage over other provinces when it comes to going green because the large urban areas around Toronto, with the highest population and highest energy demand, are supported by nuclear power, which provides the base load that all the other forms of energy can stand upon. Without the nuclear foundation, the province would have to rely much more on natural gas.

By the way, natural gas is often referred to as a clean energy source. It's not. Sure, it's much cleaner than coal - without the sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and particulate matter that coal produces - but natural gas is still a fossil fuel that releases tons of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas at the source of all our climate change problems.

Comparing natural gas to coal is like comparing modern cars to the gas guzzlers of the 1960s. Yes, the new vehicles are far more efficient and cleaner, but there is still a lot of CO2 coming out of their tailpipes. Relying more on natural gas, which other provinces and other countries are doing, can create a false sense of security and comfort. In fact, natural gas is just a bridge technology on the way to truly clean energy production.

The interesting question to ask is, what's next?

As Canada's population grows, so too will the demand for energy. The nuclear power plants are aging, extremely expensive to upgrade and have a poor image in the public consciousness, especially since the Fukushima disaster in Japan. Wind and solar are still fringe technologies, providing intermittent power that is less than 20 per cent of the total demand. Windmills also face opposition from people who don't want to see them in their backyards.

So, how will Ontario meet rising demand while still remaining green?

There are new technologies on the horizon, involving energy storage for wind and solar, but eventually, we will turn back to coal. The irony is that while coal is one of the dirtiest fuels, it is also the cheapest and most abundant. There is still more coal in the ground than any other fossil fuel. As we continue to burn up every drop of oil and every bubble of gas that we can find in the ground, inexpensive coal is going to look more and more attractive. That means it might make a return, even just for economic reasons.

With that in mind, Canada and the U.S. Department of Energy are investigating clean coal technology. That may seem like an oxymoron, but it is a realistic plan that involves building new generating stations that have no smoke stacks. Carbon dioxide from the combustion process would be removed and pumped underground, where, supposedly, geological formations will keep it in place. This is a process called carbon capture and storage.

The combustion of coal would also be dramatically improved to make it more efficient and reduce emissions at the source. Currently, coal is simply pulverized and blown into a burner. The new system would convert the coal into a synthetic gas, which burns cleaner and more efficiently.

But these new technologies come with a cost. It is expensive to capture carbon and transport it underground. Creating synthetic gas consumes energy itself. As we have learned again and again, going green is going to cost us.

But at least Ontario has shown that it is possible to take the first step in our walk towards a low-carbon atmosphere. It has thrown out the old technology and not suffered because of it. Now, we just need to keep walking ahead to get completely beyond coal, towards even better ways of keeping the lights on.