There are two big stories in the recent history of power generation in Ontario – how the province lowered its emissions, and how it ended up with higher electricity prices. Both shape how the province’s political parties have approached the issue of electricity in the ongoing election campaign.
Ontario stopped burning coal to produce power in 2014. It was a major achievement that improved Ontarians’ health, with smog alerts going from regular to rare. It’s also the main reason the province’s greenhouse gas emissions are down 27 per cent since 2005. But a long history of government mistakes, from dubious green power contracts to controversial natural gas plants, also sent electricity costs spiralling higher. Rates today are roughly double those of 2006.
And that has led to a strange bipartisan political agreement – to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize hydro bills. The Liberals started it in 2017 and Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives doubled down. The province’s Financial Accountability Office estimates that subsidies will cost $118-billion over the next two decades. It’s madness, but popular, so none of the leading parties want to talk about it. Elephant in the room? Where?
The next challenge Ontario faces involves both issues – how to green the grid, without sending electricity costs even higher. Each party has part of an answer, but none is keen to draw too much attention to the difficult choices ahead.
The aging Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, source of one-sixth of Ontario’s power, will close in 2025. The Darlington and Bruce stations can run until the 2060s, but refurbishing them means temporary shutdowns, further reducing Ontario’s capacity to generate clean power.
How to fill the gap? The easy option is natural gas, from the relatively new plants built to act as surge power when demand spikes, or when wind and solar are idle because the wind isn’t blowing, or the sun isn’t shining. But a greater reliance on gas means fossil methane replaces zero-emission nuclear – and Ontario’s currently low emissions from electricity could jump fivefold by 2035, according to the Independent Electricity System Operator. Last fall, in response to big cities calling for the end to gas power, IESO concluded that doing so by 2030 would be expensive and risky. The report was widely criticized, and in April it emerged that other options could work.
Four years ago, it was politically easy for Mr. Ford to promise lower prices while railing against green power. But gas prices are up, and new wind and solar cost a fraction of what they did when a Liberal government first pursued the technologies more than a decade ago.
Mr. Ford these days is a lot less ideological about electricity. Why? Business. His April budget praised clean energy and said it was key to drawing global investments, including support for the auto sector to go electric. The budget spoke of letting businesses tap into solar and wind, developing more nuclear power, and spending more than $1-billion on transmission in southwest Ontario to deliver clean power to industry.
The Liberals, meanwhile, are more explicit about their goal – getting off natural gas and moving to 100-per-cent clean power. How will they do it? Through “the right, cost-effective mix of nuclear, hydroelectricity and renewables.” Good destination, but where’s the map?
The NDP are somewhat more specific, promising more hydro, more wind and solar, more grid-scale storage and better links to the excess hydro power of Manitoba and Quebec.
But the NDP doesn’t mention nuclear, which in Ontario is a giant omission. Nuclear is the province’s top power source, the main reason Ontario was able to get off coal, and the main reason its electricity is currently more than 90-per-cent zero emission. That can’t change any time soon: The Canada Energy Regulator’s net-zero electricity outlook sees Ontario’s 2050 power mix including about 40-per-cent nuclear power.
Each of Ontario’s major parties has good idea in their platforms – and if it were possible to pick each of their best ideas, the result would be something close to a solid electricity strategy. Except, of course, for the billions of dollars Ontario taxpayers are spending to pay the bills of Ontario ratepayers. But never mind. That’s the easy thing to agree on.
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