Waterloo Region Record
Saturday, March 14, 2009
Byline: Jack Gibbons
Promises to clean up our environmental act are easy. Action often proves to be a lot tougher, especially for governments. That's why Ontario's proposed new Green Energy Act could be very important. Here we have a piece of legislation that could represent a tipping point for parting with our old wasteful energy ways and embracing a clean, green future -- if we get the details right.
And there are a lot of details still to come for this very lean piece of legislation. The act lays out the Dalton McGuinty government's new energy agenda in very broad strokes: more emphasis on efficiency, more renewable power and fewer barriers to the deployment of green sources. But it's the details -- and what's not in the act -- such as billions for nuclear projects -- that will determine whether this legislation powers a green energy revolution or leaves Ontario a sputtering green weakling.
There are four elements that are needed to turn the tide: a real commitment to ramp up spending on energy efficiency; a more enlightened approach to using natural gas; action on a promised plan to create greater synergies with Quebec; and an end to blank cheque spending on nuclear projects.
Right now, Ontario is committed to spending $60 on new generation sources for every dollar it has spent on improving our energy efficiency (which, by the way, lags far behind that of New York state). Essentially, the province has contracted for $19 billion of new electricity supply capacity while nickel and diming the fastest and cheapest way to keep our lights on -- energy-efficiency investments.
This is not rocket science. Conservation programs have proved their value over and over again in jurisdictions that have done the math and concluded that spending two to five cents-a-kilowatt hour on conservation beats spending anywhere from twice to 20 times that amount on new generating plants. The government must provide our municipal utilities (e.g., Kitchener-Wilmot Hydro, Toronto Hydro) with the funding they need to pursue all our cost-effective energy efficiency opportunities.
The story for our natural gas usage is eerily similar to our approach to conservation. Just about every building in Ontario uses gas to deliver one service -- heat. Virtually the same amount of gas could be used to deliver two services -- heat and electricity. Much greater use of combined heat and power (CHP) systems, which can be located in hospitals, schools, high rises or factories, would dramatically increase the efficiency of our natural gas usage.
Combined heat and power is also an excellent bridging technology. It has all the steady 24/7 availability that is trumpeted as a key attribute of nuclear power; and it avoids the need for expensive and disruptive new transmission lines by locating power generation where the electricity is being used. The Green Energy Act must clear the way for much greater deployment of this flexible and reliable power source that is already widely used throughout Europe.
And then there is Quebec. Our neighbour is sitting on a growing surplus of power from its existing hydro assets. It is also sitting on a potential gold mine of additional power that could be generated simply by improving the energy efficiency of a province that makes Ontario's bloated consumption levels look lean and mean by comparison.
The potential synergies -- and cost savings --of better co-ordinating the two province's power systems are huge. Hydro Quebec's vast hydroelectric generating capacity, which can be turned on and off relatively easily, can be used to backstop renewable sources in Ontario and to help the province cope with its peak day demand that occurs in the summer.
In winter, when power demand peaks in Quebec, Ontario can return the favour by exporting wind power (which peaks in winter) to its neighbour. This synergy can result in 24/7 renewable power with no interruptions and at a cost well below that of new nuclear. The Green Energy Act should give clear priority to increasing our electricity trade with Quebec before we consider building costly nuclear plants.
Finally, speaking of nuclear costs, it is time to end the free lunch. Again and again, ratepayers and taxpayers have picked up the tab for out-of-control costs on nuclear projects. Again and again, retrofitted nuclear plants have failed to reach promised performance levels. Again and again the government of Ontario agrees to cut another blank cheque for nuclear projects at the expense of our long-suffering electricity consumers and taxpayers -- an offer not extended to any other generation type, whether it is a big gas plant or a single wind turbine. Eighteen billion dollars in stranded debt from past nuclear projects is more than enough. The Green Energy Act must level the playing field by making nuclear developers fully responsible for their own capital cost overruns -- just like every other power developer.
These are the key elements that will determine if Ontario truly can be transformed from a reluctant follower to an enthusiastic leader in the unfolding green energy revolution.
Jack Gibbons is chair of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance.