Everyone knows burning coal is awful. Ask any fifth grader. “It’s bad for the environment” they’ll tell you, plain and simple. They’re not wrong. Coal poisons air, water, and field alike when it burns and, with its thorium and uranium content, emits 100 times the harmful radiation of nuclear power. You read that right. (Solar, of course, emits exactly zero.)
The insane thing is that six large coal-fired generating units are still operating in Ontario. In fact, coal power plants are the single largest polluter in the province. We get excited about the benefits of hybrid cars, but the truth is that these six coal units, even running at just 20% of capacity, produce more toxic emissions than a million conventional SUVs.
These figures, incidentally, don’t even account for the effects of mining and transporting the coal, activities which devastate vast areas of wilderness and pump hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. It’s all too easy to forget these secondary costs of fossil fuels when comparing them with green energy. Burning coal burns us back every step of the way.
And the danger isn’t just ecological; it’s a real threat to our health and well-being. The Ministry of the Environment estimates the death toll of air pollution in Ontario at 1,900 lives per year, including 25 victims under the age of 19.
“So, why are we still burning coal?” that fifth grader would be right to ask. The answer, of course, is complicated. The government has promised to shut down the remaining coal plants by the end of 2014, but this is a timeline that’s been pushed back more than once and is a good measure too long already. The reality is that Ontario still needs that energy to keep up with peak demand. The province uses far more energy during the day than it does at night and far more energy during the summer months than the winter.
Our other energy sources are either constant (as with nuclear and hydro) or at their most prolific on winter nights (as with wind).
I’m sure you can connect the dots yourself, so I won’t spend too much time belabouring the point that solar power produces its greatest yield during the times of peak demand. What I will mention though is that rooftop solar, when installed at industrial addresses, also produces its yield at the site of peak demand, thus saving on transportation and transmission costs.
The best route to eliminating the coal plants in Ontario is through aggressive installation of solar panels. If we can install solar generators on 2,800 rooftops in Ontario, we can generate enough power to take one of the six remaining coal-fired units offline. That’s real progress, real pollution reduction, and real lives saved. It’s also an insanely ambitious goal.
With 230 installations totalling 60 megawatts of power generation, we’re not quite a tenth of the way there. But worthwhile work is inevitably hard work, and the best thing about fighting a demon as pernicious as coal is that even the smallest victory brings with it tangible reward. Every time we add another rooftop to our network we can think of it as 188 minutes of clean air. And while we’re breathing that in nice and deep, we can reflect on a future, just a little bit closer now, when we can answer the fifth grader’s “Why are we still burning coal?” with: “We aren’t”.