Loss of 1,000 megawatts hitting OPG just as electricity demand nears its peak

July 07, 2007 Tyler Hamilton - Energy Reporter

Hot days ahead and a desire to keep cool could spell trouble for the province's electricity system.

Ontario Power Generation said yesterday its two Pickering A nuclear units, which have been down for unplanned maintenance for a month, will now be out of service for most of the summer.

The lengthy outage means the province will be short 1,000 megawatts of domestic power generation just as southern Ontario enters its hottest weekend of the year so far, with little relief expected as we pass through the muggy months of July and August - typically a period of high electricity demand because of increased dependence on air conditioning.

"What it does is increase the need for imports, particularly during hot and humid weather," said Terry Young, spokesperson for the Independent Electricity System Operator, which manages demand and supply on Ontario's electricity system.

One megawatt powers about 1,000 homes in Ontario.

Young said Ontario has the capacity to import up to 4,000 megawatts of electricity from Quebec and the United States, though such power can often come at a cost premium and from coal-based generators that spew pollution across the border.

"Beyond that, there are other measures to maintain reliability," said Young, adding that a public appeal to reduce energy consumption would come first, complemented by demand-response programs and power line voltage reductions if necessary.

Nobody is using the word blackout just yet, but industry officials concede that the risk increases with any long-term loss of generation.

In addition to such a risk, some observers say the timing of the Pickering A outages calls into question whether Ontario ratepayers are getting value from more than $2 billion worth of refurbishments to the facility's two remaining Candu reactors.

"The rest of the summer? This is a real blow to OPG, and it represents a very serious challenge for the government's reputation," said Tom Adams, an Energy Probe analyst.

Reactor unit 1 was put back into service in September 2005 after being idle for seven years, while unit 4's refurbishment was completed in September 2003. The government decided to mothball units 2 and 3 in 2005, calling their restoration economically unviable.

Adams said the same argument should have been applied to units 1 and 4. He called refurbishment of the units a "terrible financial mistake" and said their track record has been "very poor" since coming back into service.

"Unplanned outages are not a good sign, and being caught by surprise is a harsh verdict. They should have been able to predict the production cycle more accurately."

OPG took the units offline on June 5 to do work on a backup electrical system, with the expectation that the reactors would be back in operation by mid-June, in advance of any steamy summer weather.

"We found it's going to take longer to do the modification," said OPG spokesperson Jacquie McInnes, adding that the units will remain out of service for several weeks.

Pickering A has had a rough ride in recent years, particularly unit 4, which has been shut down several times since early 2005 - in one case for three months.

OPG recently reported that Pickering A's capacity has plunged from 91 per cent in the first quarter of 2006 to 63.5 per cent during the same period this year.

But Steven Erwin, a spokesperson for Energy Minister Dwight Duncan, defended the decision to refurbish the Pickering A units, pointing out that it's the backup system - not the reactors - that are the problem.

"It's not like they can't operate," said Erwin, adding that the maintenance is just a precaution.

"Should it have been caught earlier? We wish we could have caught it earlier. But the units themselves are operating just fine."

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