By Tom Mosseau
Canada has historically prioritized decarbonization. Since the introduction of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, Canada has committed to reducing emissions and becoming a net-zero nation for the past three decades. More recently, Canada’s Clean Electricity Standard and the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act has further solidified the government’s climate change commitments, promising to achieve carbon neutral power grids by 2035 and national net-zero emissions by 2050.
Despite these commitments, many Canadians are concerned about the ability to achieve widespread clean, and relatively inexpensive, energy sources. Citizens aren’t entirely misled by these concerns. Canada has spent considerable time and money on wind and solar energy programs, but it’s clear that these renewable sources won’t significantly accelerate the nation’s decarbonization agenda.
Utilities are also equally hesitant. There are significant costs associated with transitioning to clean energy. Some leaders are not confident they’ll be able to achieve the necessary return on investments when upgrading transmission and distribution capabilities needed to support renewable energy and intelligent operations in the forthcoming smarter, greener era. Despite many challenges, Canada is still on the right track.
Why nuclear—and why now?
There is one solution that Canadian utilities have already explored, though arguably not to its fullest potential—nuclear energy. Currently, according to the World Nuclear Association, 15 per cent of Canada’s electricity is fueled by nuclear energy, but there’s still an air of caution surrounding this energy source. When people hear the word “nuclear,” their minds typically go to tragic accidents and weapons of mass destruction. And when utility leaders hear that word, their thoughts jump to operational adjustments, costs, and risk implications. But it’s time we dispel the negative connotation shrouding nuclear energy and recognize it as the leading source of carbon-neutral power in Canada. In fact, Canada and the rest of the world will not achieve their net-zero targets without nuclear as there is not enough electricity generation capacity with all the other generation sources combined to meet the electrification demands of the future.
According to the International Energy Agency’s Net-Zero by 2025 report nuclear energy is the world’s second largest source of low-carbon electricity, and to meet global net-zero goals, nuclear energy production must double by 2050. These findings aren’t entirely surprising when you consider that nuclear fission does not emit fossil fuel byproducts—and removes harmful air pollutants. What’s more, according to the Canadian Nuclear Association, nuclear energy requires very little land, produces minimal waste, and is expected to introduce thousands of jobs in Canada as adoption rates increase over the next few decades—making it a sound business investment for corporations and a promising opportunity for citizens. The Nuclear Energy Institute argues that nuclear power is currently the most affordable clean energy source in the world.
Scale over size
Countries around the world can learn a lot from Canada, as the country is making big bets on the future of nuclear. Since the introduction Natural Resources Canada’s Small Modular Reactor (SMR) Roadmap in 2018 and the subsequent SMR Action in 2020, the country has been leading nuclear adoption in the western hemisphere. And thanks to the government’s recent investment of $970 million to develop a grid-scale SMR at Ontario Power Generation’s Darlington site, Canada will be the first G7 nation with a commercial grid-scale SMR.
This investment is a step in the right direction. SMRs are considerably more manageable to scale than large nuclear-powered electric grids. As the name suggests, they are much smaller—meaning their footprint will take up less land than other power plants, and it will also be much easier to install and operate SMR sites across the nation, particularly in remote locations. All of this translates into less costs for utilities—and more affordable and widely available clean energy for Canadians.
Digital before physical
Despite the progress being made in Ontario, many utilities outside of this province have not scaled their nuclear adoption programs. Concerns over the costs and operational challenges of upgrading transmission and distribution systems have caused leaders to pause. But there are tactics they can, and must, turn to in order to progress the transition to nuclear energy—and ultimately help accelerate Canada’s net zero ambitions. For instance, utility leaders will need to consider that operating an SMR unit is very different than a large nuclear unit. They must decide if they’ll embed the new SMR business operating model within their existing business operating models. Leaders will also have to ask themselves: what are their make, buy and borrow strategies across their supply chain, which SMR technology will they use, and how will they implement a sustainable approach for handling waste.
That said, the backbone of nuclear energy transition agendas and nationwide SMR rollouts is first and foremost digital. Utilities will turn to digital twins to create virtual replicas of their proposed, physical SMRs. This digital simulation helps enterprises build plants and upgrade grid systems without the fear of wasting time and money on failed plans.
However, when implementing a digital twin, utilities must remember it is not merely an IT project, but rather a business transformation initiative. And an effective business transformation initiative requires organization-wide support. Ramping up digital twin programs will require enterprises to develop a clear roadmap and project management governance, ensuring efficiency and digital continuity across systems and processes. Once this foundation has been established, many utilities will need to turn their attention to their data governance structures, which may not be equipped to enable digital twins. To ensure the solution is truly a replica of their proposed SMR, they will need to feed the digital twin with accurate data, and this can only be done with a pragmatic approach to data collection.
Once utilities establish their business models in light of SMR plans and prioritize digital solutions to help spur their initiatives, Canada will see SMR rollouts in numerous provinces. But the time to act is now.
It’s not if, but when
The convergence of international decarbonization commitments and consumers’ growing demand for clean, cost-effective energy in Canada is already forcing the utility sector to increasingly adopt renewable energy sources and scale intelligent operations. It’s only a matter of time until the entire country is fueled, in some way, shape, or form, by nuclear energy. Canadian utilities must continue to propel the nuclear adoption plans forward, looking towards government funding and digital solutions to ease cost burdens and remain relevant in today’s competitive market.
We’ve already done so much as a country, but now is not the time to rest on our laurels. We have a long road ahead to achieve net-zero, and 2050 is quickly approaching.
Tom Mosseau is vice president and utilities leader with Capgemini Canada.
[This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 edition of ReNew Canada]
Featured image: Ontario Power Generation announced that Unit 3 at Darlington Nuclear Generating Station has been reconnected to the province’s electricity grid. (OPG)