Ontario’s chance to get more from green energy   Leave a comment

Ontario has decided to take a pause in its Large Renewable Procurement (LRP) efforts, citing an electricity supply surplus and a need to reduce costs for consumers.

Which all sounds pretty reasonable, but the devil is in the details.  First off, why do we have a surplus?Not because of solar and wind energy, which still makes up only a small fraction of our electricity supply, providing less than 7% of our power last year.

We have a surplus because Ontario operates three gigantic nuclear plants (including the world’s biggest – the Bruce Nuclear Station).  Demand for electricity has fallen over the past decade in Ontario due to changes in our economy (less heavy industry), conservation efforts, and new technologies (LED lighting), but we have not reduced our nuclear production accordingly.  The result is a large surplus of power.

Second, will stopping renewable power development lower costs for consumers?  Not likely. Ontario Power Generation recently asked the Ontario Energy Board for permission to raise the rate it is paid for nuclear power by 180% over the next decade.  Contrast that with the rapidly falling costs of wind and solar power.  For wind, we have already reached the point where it is more than competitive with nuclear power costs.  For solar, that crossing point is only a few years away.

Benefitting from the green energy revolution

Which means that we are at a crossroads.  Old energy technologies such as nuclear are being quickly overtaken by more flexible, easier to deploy and – increasingly – less expensive options such as solar and wind.  Ontario can try to ignore this worldwide trend or it can work through the transition and come out the other side with a more dynamic system that it is a better fit for our changing needs.

That’s the challenge that should be at the heart of the province’s current efforts to revise its Long Term Energy Plan (LTEP). And that revised plan also needs to strongly support the province’s climate change efforts.  Far from needing less electricity, we will actually need substantially more if we are gong to de-carbonize our energy use by moving away from sources like natural gas for things like home heating and accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles.  Counting on 50-year-old inflexible nuclear plants to fill this need is taking the wrong path – we will be throwing good money after bad.

The government made a commendable decision to kickstart a new high-tech green power industry in this province.  That effort has led to thousands of new jobs and has set the stage for the next generation of Ontarians to thrive in a world of electric cars, distributed energy and smart grids.

The community advantage

We know the people of Ontario still support green energy – recent polling showed that 81% think we should continue to develop renewable sources like solar and wind.  But the public is rightly concerned about how we are currently going about this task.  Too often, they feel left in the dark by processes like the LRP program or the LTEP planning cycle.

So this “pause” gives us a valuable opportunity to rethink how we are going about the business of building a modern, green energy system.  When renewable power systems are developed locally by co-ops, school boards, municipalities or community organizations, they keep dollars and jobs in our communities, provide revenue that can used for everything from fixing arenas to improving schools, and enable those communities to become more resilient and better able to ride out severe weather events.

Through its Feed-in Tariff program, Ontario has quietly developed a leading-edge community power sector.  This is the foundation we need to build on in creating a healthy, safe, reliable and cost effective electricity system that is supported by communities because it puts communities first.

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