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The IESO concluded in its most recent report that ‘existing resources can meet energy demands in most circumstances until the mid-2030s.’ But the situation looks different in Windsor and Essex County.GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

Reports last month that Windsor, Ont., lost out on a proposed $2.5-billion chemical plant over an inability to source the power it would need have cast a cloud over Ontario’s electricity system.

On April 10, Invest WindsorEssex, a non-profit, told reporters it had cancelled a meeting on behalf of South Korean chemical giant LG Chem because the company would not be able to source the 10 megawatts of power it would need by late 2024. With a provincial election just weeks away, opposition parties cited the news as evidence of poor electricity planning by the government. In public statements, Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said sufficient power could be made available if LG Chem were to choose his city.

Neither Invest WindsorEssex nor LG Chem responded to inquiries from The Globe and Mail.

Is Ontario really unable to accommodate new demand from a single industrial plant? If so, what does that say about the state of its electricity system – and its ability to manage the profound energy transition so many people are counting on?

Officially, there is no looming electricity supply crisis. In its latest planning outlook, published in December, the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) concluded that “existing resources can meet energy demands in most circumstances until the mid-2030s.” Grid-level demand in Ontario held steady during the past five years, between 132 and 137 terawatt-hours.

But the situation looks different in Windsor and Essex County. They’re located in the “West of London,” or WOL, transmission region, which stretches from London to Windsor, on the U.S. border, and up to Sarnia, on the southern tip of Lake Huron.

“It is completely plausible that [LG Chem] couldn’t get the power,” said Rupp Carriveau, an engineering professor at the University of Windsor. “Presently, there’s a lack of available power to do big power operations in this part of the grid.”

It’s not that the area lacks generating facilities; it’s home to several gas-fired power plants and a number of wind farms.

“There’s ample supply,” said David Butters, president of the Association of Power Producers of Ontario. “But here’s the thing: none of those [generating facilities] are physically connected to a plant, LG’s or anybody else’s. They’re connected to the transmission grid.”

And it’s the transmission grid, observers agree, that is the primary constraint. It connects large generators in the Sarnia area and Windsor with demand centres, has interties with Michigan’s power system – and has struggled to keep up with surging demand for several years.

In a statement, the IESO said strong economic growth in southwestern Ontario is driving an “unprecedented” demand for power, which is expected to double again over the next five years.

“That’s like adding a city the size of Hamilton to the grid,” wrote spokesperson Andrew Dow.

An IESO report released in September said rising demand in Windsor-Essex has been driven by agriculture, namely vegetable greenhouses and cannabis operations. So many have requested grid connections that the IESO doubted the transmission system could handle them all.

The Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers association represents 200 farmers growing tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, four-fifths of them in Windsor-Essex. Aaron Coristine, the association’s manager of science, regulatory affairs and government relations, estimates greenhouse floor space has been increasing about 5 per cent a year. The IESO predicts agricultural demand will further increase from a current winter peak of 500 megawatts to 2,300 by 2035.

Hydro One, the province’s largest transmission and distribution utility, said it’s developing five new transmission lines in Southwestern Ontario to “ensure that power is available to support economic growth in the region as quickly as possible.” The projects will cost more than $1-billion and are scheduled for completion in phases between now and 2030.

Dr. Carriveau, who has been warning of power shortfalls in Windsor-Essex for several years, said Ontario’s highly centralized grid helps make electricity reliable and affordable. But provincial planners have struggled to keep track of disruptive technologies and other developments in a wide array of industries, much less respond in real time. He doesn’t envy the IESO’s responsibility for forecasting and planning.

“It’s a very difficult job they have,” he said. “They really need to have their fingers in every single economic sector and get a sense of what’s coming.”

The struggles in Windsor-Essex offer a taste of far greater challenges looming in Ontario and beyond as governments attempt to deliver on “net zero” commitments.

A recent report from the Canadian Climate Institute added to an already formidable pile of forecasts predicting massive surges in electricity demand as coal- and gas-fired power plants are phased out and Canadians switch to electric vehicles, induction ranges, heat pumps and electric furnaces. The institute predicted generation capacity will need to increase as much as 240 per cent.

“Acting quickly is much better than acting slowly,” the report urged. “The most important thing now is that Canada gets on with the task ahead: building clean energy supply, especially solar, wind and storage; phasing out generation from unabated fossil fuels; and making the system more flexible.”

If the IESO shared that perspective, its staff would probably be in a state of panic. Its forecast sees demand growing at the staid pace of 1.7 per cent a year. It did acknowledge “more significant needs emerging in the middle and latter part of this decade that cannot be satisfied with existing resources alone,” adding that the province’s generation mix could change substantially.

This year the government appointed an electrification and energy transition panel chaired by David Collie, who recently ended a 12-year stint as president and CEO of Ontario’s Electrical Safety Authority.

Mr. Butters said the province must balance the need to move quickly against the risk of overbuilding and overpaying.

“We’re going to need everything we have now – and a whole lot more,” he said. “I’m suspicious of people who say they have easy answers, because there aren’t any.”

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