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Konrad Yakabuski (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Konrad Yakabuski

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Konrad Yakabuski

A sunny Ontario experiment gone wrong Add to ...

That glare coming off selected southern Ontario farmlands these days is not the result of some secret state experiment with atomic vegetables. No, it’s the product of another form of state-sanctioned mad science that is costing Ontarians dearly without doing diddly to improve the environment.

After Germany and California, Ontario is “enjoying” its day in the sun as a global hot spot for solar power. Photovoltaic panels are carpeting fertile and fallow farmlands at a furious rate this summer as solar power promoters rush to complete projects before the subsidy gusher slows.

By the end of 2015, more than 2,000 megawatts of solar power will be connected to the Ontario grid as developers take advantage of the province’s feed-in-tariff, guaranteeing them a heady two-decade return on their investment, courtesy of the weary Ontario electricity consumer.

The newly re-elected Liberal government scaled down the FIT program last year, but not before a small group of savvy operators hit the sweet spot by locking into its risk-free cash flow. One 10MW solar farm under construction in eastern Ontario’s cottage country will get 44 cents for every kilowatt-hour of electricity it produces over 20 years.

Compare that to the average 8.55 cents per kWh that Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator says it cost to produce power in the province in 2013. The price includes a wholesale price of 2.65 cents (what the power was actually worth on the open market) and a so-called “global adjustment” of 5.9 cents to cover the sunk costs in existing nuclear, hydro and wind projects.

No other province has imitated Ontario’s folly. No wonder the solar lobby worked so hard to re-elect Premier Kathleen Wynne in the June election. The opposition Progressive Conservatives vowed to pull the plug on Liberal FIT contracts that will further burden the province’s already uncompetitive manufacturers and saddle consumers with a 50 per cent rate hike within a decade.

Solar power is not the only culprit. Far more FIT-contracted wind power will be added to the grid. Together, these contracts demonstrate the madness of Ontario’s so-called green energy policy. Not only will it cost more, it won’t remove much if any carbon from the atmosphere.

The biggest myth about wind and solar power is that they automatically displace carbon dioxide produced by coal- or gas-fired power plants. Solar power producers consistently make this claim without any proof to back it up. Quite often, the opposite is true.

Take Ontario, which counts on baseload nuclear power for 60 per cent of its installed electricity capacity. Nuclear produces no carbon emissions. Neither does the hydro power that accounts for about one-quarter of Ontario’s capacity. On many days, demand in Ontario isn’t high enough to require power from additional sources. But when it is, wind and solar can’t be counted on.

Quite simply, neither wind nor solar are reliable sources of electricity. In its latest 18-month outlook, the IESO forecasts that 99.5 per cent of Ontario’s 12,947 MW of installed nuclear capacity will be available during summer consumption peaks. But it predicts only 13.7 per cent of the 1,824 MW of installed wind capacity will be available. Solar is even less reliable. So, when wind and solar actually do produce power, it’s usually dumped.

To meet consumption peaks, Ontario’s grid operator needs a dependable supply of complementary power. In the past, that came from coal plants, which could be fired up on an as-needed basis. Thankfully, they’ve all been closed and replaced by natural gas-fired plants.

Natural gas is still a fossil fuel, but its carbon footprint is half or less that of coal. And modern combined-cycle gas plants are so efficient, reliable and cheap to build (relative to other forms of electricity) that Charles Frank of the centrist Brookings Institution calls them, along with nuclear power, “the ‘best bang for our buck’ as we seek to reduce emissions.”

“A nuclear or gas combined-cycle plant avoids far more emissions per MW of capacity than wind or solar because it can operate at 90 per cent of full capacity,” Mr. Frank notes in a new study. “Limited benefits and higher costs make wind and solar less socially valuable than nuclear, hydro and combined-cycle gas.”

Add in the alarmingly high failure rate of solar panels, the absence of a long-term track record, and the quashing of local content rules and the outcome of Ontario’s sunny experiment could be even darker than it looks.

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