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A view of Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Courtice, Ont. on May 23.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail

Ralph Torrie is director of research at Corporate Knights.

It was 1976. I was 24, single and a physics student at the University of Waterloo. Ontario Hydro was projecting 7-per-cent annual growth in electricity demand, and calling for 24 new nuclear reactors and 18 new coal-fired units. None of the plants were ever built. Peak power demand two decades later, in 1997, was 22,000 megawatts – not the 57,000 that Hydro had predicted.

It was 1989. I was 37, married with two toddlers. Ontario Hydro called for 10 new nuclear power reactors at three locations, as well as several large fossil-fuelled plants. Hydro was forecasting that peak demand would track economic growth at 2.5 per cent per year and top 35,000 MW by 2014 – 50 per cent above its 1989 level. What happened? In 2014, peak demand was lower than it was in 1989 when the plan was hatched.

It was 2005. I was 53, vice-president of ICF International, my children were grown, and my wife and I had moved to Cobourg to care for my ailing mother. The newly formed Ontario Power Authority (OPA) forecast that peak demand for electricity would start growing nearly twice as fast as it had over the previous 15 years, reaching 30,000 MW by 2025. Worried that a gap might develop between supply and demand, the government expedited approval of new gas power plants, and we all know how that went. The gap never materialized.

Now it is 2023. I have two young grandchildren who face a future of climate chaos, my work focuses on the pattern of investments needed for the sustainability transition and “gap-ology” is once again afoot in Ontario electricity’s sector.

Premier Doug Ford‘s government is making a big push on nuclear power based on this perennial hunger. The OPA has been absorbed by the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), and they are forecasting an eye-watering 60,000 MW of peak demand by 2050 for Ontario to successfully decarbonize its economy. Like all the ones that came before it, it’s a forecast that will surely be proven both wrong and costly.

The IESO puts the price tag at $400-billion over the next 27 years. And that’s just for the bulk power system – it doesn’t include conversion costs for households and firms to electrify, or the costs for local distribution utilities to cope with the transition. Much of that money is earmarked for unproven prototype technologies that we’ve never built or licensed before. The list begins with four 300-MW enriched uranium light-water reactors slated for Darlington, which will not put power on the grid until who knows when (10 years from now?) and at who knows what cost.

Yes, it stands to reason that the shift to electric vehicles and heat pumps will add new electricity consumption to the system. But it’s a transition that will take place with many other countervailing factors at play – the same factors that rendered previous forecasts obsolete, and that are evidently outside the framework in which electricity planning is conducted in Ontario.

A global energy transition is under way, and while electrification is a central theme, so is the development of technologies, materials and techniques that reduce the amount of electricity and the peak consumption required to meet the demand for human amenities that drive all economies.

These technologies and techniques are being most intensively researched and deployed in countries where natural resources are scarcer and electricity is more expensive than in Canada, but once they’re developed, they move through the global economy in less time than it takes to design, build and licence a multibillion-dollar nuclear power plant prototype. These new technologies could keep peak demand growth in Ontario well under 1 per cent a year, even as we electrify our vehicles and our natural gas-heated homes and buildings.

History continues to outrun electricity planning in Ontario, as it has been doing for decades now, and we all pay for the overshoots and malinvestment that result. We cannot afford another round of ill-conceived commitments to multibillion-dollar megaprojects that will be left half-built and stranded just as technology, market forces and common sense are converging on a smarter, less expensive, more distributed and renewable-based energy system. One our grandchildren can feel good about.

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