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Nuclear Power to Thank for End of Coal in Ontario

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On Nov. 23, 2013, former US Vice President Al Gore, who is known for his climate documentary An Inconvenient Truth, appeared on stage in Toronto with Kathleen Wynne, the premier of Ontario at the time.

Gore was there to help celebrate Ontario nearing its goal to put an end to coal-fired electricity generation. “Ontario has distinguished itself as a leader in Canada and around the world,” Gore said. “It is heartening to see the tremendous progress that has been made here and it is my hope that others will quickly follow suit.”

It was a proud moment for Ontario. But the end of coal came not from renewables, as some have tried to suggest. It came from the phasing in of nuclear energy.

An effective approach

In 2007, the Ontario government adopted the Integrated Power System Plan, guiding the province’s energy choices over 20 years. The plan aimed to stabilize prices, double renewable energy, and increase conservation. Its central goal was to replace coal with cleaner power.

At that time, coal represented a quarter of Ontario’s electricity generation. The challenge was for Ontario to provide enough clean electricity to make up for the shortfall in power caused by the closure of the coal-fired plants.

Hydro was not an option, as Ontario had reached nearly 90% of its hydro capacity. Renewables such as wind and solar represented only a tiny fraction of the province’s power supply and could not be scaled up to the levels needed. Furthermore, as solar and wind sources cannot produce steady power around the clock, they rely on natural gas as back up, leading to higher greenhouse gas emissions.

The solution came in the form of nuclear power that was available thanks to a decision, after 2003, to modernize three of Ontario’s nuclear reactors — Pickering A Unit 1 and Bruce Units 3 and 4 — and return them to service. With this new, substantial wave of clean electricity entering the grid, Ontario was now free to start closing its four coal-fired plants — starting in 2010 and concluding in 2014.

Ontario no longer uses coal to generate electricity, resulting in cleaner air and smog-free days.

A lasting solution

Today, Ontario no longer uses coal to generate electricity, resulting in cleaner air and smog-free days. Cleaner air meant better public health. Smog days — an all-too-common occurrence in the early 2000s and a bane to so many Ontarians, especially asthma sufferers — were now history.

And it will stay that way. Ontario’s nuclear-generated, clean electricity now makes up over 60% of the province’s power mix. This is compared with 37% back in 2000, before the nuclear fleet scaled up to fill the void left by the gradual phasing out of coal.

This is how Ontario became the first jurisdiction in North America to shut down coal-fired generation. Moreover, with the refurbishment programs now underway at the Darlington and Bruce nuclear stations, Ontarians can count on having clean air and clean power for decades to come.

This is real de-carbonization in action, driving down carbon emissions while cleaning the air of smog and dirt from fossil fuels. It is a testament to the enormous impact of nuclear energy as a solution in fighting climate change — if we understand the facts and learn from them.

Thanks to nuclear power, Ontario has indeed “powered past coal”. We should be proud of this achievement.

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