If there is one good thing about the shutdown of the Ontario legislature it is that the pause provides an opportunity to rethink our energy policy in Ontario. No file has been more badly handled by the McGuinty government than the hydro file. From its mad rush into wind and solar technologies without any regard to the end cost, to inking one-way deals with private nuclear operators, to its vacillation on gas powered generation; the government has created uncertainly and added significantly to the cost of power for consumers and industry.
Ontario became an industrial powerhouse at the beginning of the last century because forward thinking people like Adam Beck foresaw that “power at cost” would make the province attractive to American companies looking to tap into the Canadian market by establishing a presence here. “Power at cost” in 2012 takes on a much different meaning, as the government has allowed the cost of power to spiral out of control, with its largely feckless tinkering.
The solar and wind power is largely sold into the US at a huge loss because we can’t use it most of the time. Nobody is arguing for a continuation of coal fired plants, but Canada is sitting on vast supplies of cheap and abundant natural gas, which is far cleaner than coal. Yet the government blinked in the face of local opposition and halted proposed gas fired generation facilities in Oakville and Mississauga. Not only has the move resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in sunk costs and penalties, but it has sent an unrealistic message to NIMBY’ists everywhere—“even though you choose to live in a densely-populated area that needs more and more power, you have no responsibility to allow power generation in your midst.” There once was a time when governments led on issues like this. That is how we got the nuclear power plants (rightly or wrongly) , the 401 and the QEW. Governments of the day recognized that there were some projects whose strategic value to the province as a whole outweighed localized opposition.
None of those projects could have happened in today’s climate, where all ideas are valued—even stupid ones. The government could have avoided the Oakville-Mississauga debacle by allowing Ontario Power Generation to retrofit the now closed Lakeview Generating Station at Port Credit from coal to gas. This would have placed cleaner power where it is needed in a facility and location that was historically accepted by the public for that purpose. Instead the Lakeview site will likely be developed, although the presence of a sewage treatment plant next door to Lakeview will be a limiting factor on the site’s options.
Right now, Ontario’s generating capacity is split roughly three ways between Nuclear, Water power and Thermal (coal or Natural Gas). But the thermal plants are mostly idle or nearly so, because of pollution concerns. Let’s hope OPG will be allowed to convert the two large existing thermal plans in Southern Ontario—Nanticoke and Lambton from coal to cleaner gas as OPG recommends, and that cheaper thermal energy‘s share of the energy pie can be increased not decreased. This is a prudent way of stemming the ever spiralling cost of electricity in Ontario. At some point ‘ability to pay’ has to take its rightful place alongside the other issues that have dominated our energy discussion in recent years.