Energy transition leading to small modular reactors, Part 1

Chartered Financial Analysts (CFA) Society Saskatchewan held a “dinnerless dinner” online on Feb. 26, with its focus on the development of small modular reactors in this province.

Three speakers addressed the online event, with Dean Reeve and Robin Woodward speaking on “Transform Saskatchewan’s Stranded Assets – profit from the Climate Economy, and Howard Schearer speaking on “The Promise – Small Modular Nuclear Reactors Offer Saskatchewan. The event was moderated by Costa Maragos. Reeve is a retired utilities senior executive, formerly with TransGas, SaskEnergy and Atco, while Woodward is the principal with RW Consulting, a Regina-based consulting firm focussed on alternative energy development, agriculture and municipal policy and growth. Shearer is chief executive with Hitachi Canada. He pointed out he was speaking on his behalf, not his company’s.

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(This story is broken into three parts.)

Reeve said that energy transition is nothing new. Heating your home in the 1880s on the prairies was a lot different than today.

“We can all agree it was a completely different world, 140 years ago from an energy perspective,” he said. “

“In those 140 years we've experienced some fundamental energy transitions that have greatly impacted our daily lives. Our great-grandparents or our grandparents saw the transitions from wood and coal to electricity and propane and natural gas to energize their homes and their businesses, and of, course petroleum products for transportation purposes. And they greatly expanded their work productivity by moving from oxen and horses, to steam engines and then diesel-powered engines.

“These energy transitions occurred for many reasons, through innovation and new technology, and economic drivers making new energy choices more available, and more affordable. So while for current generations, energy transition is relatively new, for our ancestors, it was something they experienced and embraced, to really improve their human condition.”

He said the energy transition occurring today is gaining so much attention because “how it improves the individual human condition is maybe not quite as evident as when propane or natural gas was available to remove the need for gathering wood or going to the coal bin for fuel, or how obvious the improvements were to productivity, when you move from the horse and oxen, to the steam engine and the diesel engine. This transition is being driven by an environmental need to reduce greenhouse gases and slow the pace of climate change.”

He noted that windchills of –50 C in February make it “hard to drum up a very serious conversation about global warming.” Thus, many people wonder whether energy transition will improve their daily human conditions and economic prospects, Reeve said, noting it often it becomes a heated and polarized conversation. 

“It's often expressed in terms of are you for or against fossil fuels? If you're for fossil fuels. you must deny the impact of greenhouse gases on climate change and not care about the environment. If you're for zero emissions and renewables, you must be against any kind of fossil fuel future, and our own prosperity. Like many things today, these polarizing transpositions fail to recognize the realities and merits of both positions. Look at the recent example of Regina city council in the discussion of eliminating advertising on city-owned buildings by fossil fuel-related companies. Talk about a polarizing conversation.”

He pointed out almost 85 per cent of primary energy consumption in the world today comes from fossil fuels, which means almost all the energy growth since 1900 has been made up by fossil fuels. “I don’t see this as an either-or conversation. The world will need all these energy forms to meet its energy needs,” he said. But that doesn’t mean the energy mix won’t change.

“If natural gas is a ‘bridge fuel,’ it’s going to be a very, very long bridge.” Reeve said. He pointed out the ultimate goal is to reduce emissions, not eliminate fuel choices.

“The key energy transition is technology improvement and innovation. It's not about a single silver bullet solution. We must use the right energy for the right purpose, in the right place, at the right time.”

He said, “The solution to energy transition is a portfolio approach, no single fuel or technology will manage to replace the 85 per cent of world energy consumption satisfied by fossil fuels.”

This includes improving energy efficiency. He pointed out that since the late 1980s, a typical home went from using 150 gigajoules for space and water heating to 100 gigajoules now.

Additionally, distributed energy production and sharing are real options today. Reeve pointed out Lumsden uses solar panels to power its wastewater treatment plant.

“The technology focus and advancements in carbon capture will also be important to reduce emissions from fossil fuels.”

Hydrogen may be a solution for the energy needs of heavy-duty trucking, he said. Japan “is clearly moving towards an economy fueled by hydrogen,” he said.

In Saskatchewan, there is the potential for small modular nuclear reactors forming part of the electrical generation mix.

Reeve noted the possibility of growing trees as a way to deal with carbon pricing. “Industry energy producers, agriculture, communities, individuals and governments at all levels must avoid the trap of polarizing positions and must seek opportunities in this new energy dynamic,” Reeve said.

“Just like many of our ancestors who came to this prairie land in the 1800s, we are all interested in how we can use this energy transition to improve the human condition of our families and our future generations.”