Ontario's power crunch: What's the answer?
CBCNews.ca | Updated Sept. 25, 2007
Every flick of a switch sends electrical currents flying through Ontario's 29,000 kilometres of transmission lines, powering millions of homes, offices, lights and computers. Many days it can also spark quite the political debate.
Ontario's population is on the rise and demand looks to be growing far faster than the province's 31,000 MW of generating capacity can handle. When paired with plans to shut the aging coal-fired power plants for environmental reasons and the need to replace many of the older nuclear reactors within the next 15 years, whoever forms the next government in Ontario will need to make decisions, and soon, about how to handle the energy crisis.
As the provincial election heads into its final stage, the leaders began to turn their attention to the province's energy needs, a historic underpinning of its manufacturing prowess. But the discussions made it clear that there's no easy answer to this pressing problem, despite the fact that it has been building for decades.
The current system
For decades, Ontario's power needs were provincially regulated and run by a provincial commission and, later, crown corporation known as Ontario Hydro.
That changed in 1998 when, in an attempt to get a handle on rising energy costs and the debt hangover from building expensive nuclear plants, then Conservative premier Mike Harris separated Ontario Hydro into five branches and also opened the system to private power operators.
Provincially-owned Hydro One was given the responsibility of operating transmission lines and also serving as the local distribution company in some parts of the province, while Ontario Power Generation, also provincially owned, became the province's generation company, operating the hydroelectric, nuclear and coal-fired stations that generate about 85 per cent of the province's energy. The rest comes from private operators, many of them large mills that sell their surplus requirements to the grid.
Since 1998, two additional energy planners were added to the mix. The Ontario Energy Board, an independent tribunal, was given the responsibility for regulating the natural gas and electricity sectors, and in 2004 the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) was charged with addressing the supply gap in the face of aging infrastructure, retiring power plants and increasing demand.
OPA's most recent plan was released in August and called on the provincial government to spend an additional $26.5 billion on nuclear power plants in order to ensure a steady energy supply until 2025. It also proposed doubling the amount of renewable energy on the grid by 2025 and phasing out coal-fired plants by 2014, while increasing hydroelectric output and conservation efforts.
There were already two nuclear reactor refurbishments in the works, but the OPA plan said further refurbishments could be necessary in order to meet the expected demand.
The energy crunch
According to the Independent Electricity System Operator (IES0), energy demand in the province has steadily increased over the past decade at an average of 1.5 per cent a year, and suppliers are struggling to keep the lights on.
The most obvious example of the province's energy crisis was the Aug. 14, 2003 blackout, which left more than 50 million people from New York to Toronto to North Bay in the dark. According to a Canada-U.S. joint task force the outage was caused when an Ohio coal plant unexpectedly shut down, in the process triggering a series of transmission line problems that overloaded the circuits.
Since then, demand has grown. In 2006, the province needed 152.3 terawatt hours (a million megawatt hours) of electricity and the IESO says the province will demand an additional 16.7 TWh by 2014.
Currently, the province produces about 31,214 MW from five nuclear stations, 68 hydroelectric, four coal, 22 oil and gas, four wind and five biomass and landfill gas plants. That breaks down to nuclear, 54 per cent; hydro, 22 per cent; coal, 16 per cent; and eight for the rest.
There's an additional 10,000 MW of production currently under construction, but critics fear that even with energy imported from the U.S., Quebec or the Prairies (which will require a huge and expensive transmission-line corridor), the province still won't be able to meet demand.
When it comes to power, it's not easy to be green. Energy planners need to balance quick means of meeting the increasing demand with safe, low-emission technologies.
The dirtiest culprits in the energy mix are the province's four coal-fired power stations — Nanticoke, Lambton, Thunder Bay and Atikokan — which account for about 16 per cent of the province's generating capacity.
While coal power is inexpensive, the environmental costs are huge. When coal is burned for energy it produces greenhouse gases as well as pollutants such a nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and mercury. Most of the pollutants can be eliminated by scrubbers and other technology but there is not yet a proven, full-scale way of capturing carbon dioxide emissions, the most pervasive of the greenhouse gases.
The current government management plan would see these plants closed by 2014 — Premier Dalton McGuinty had promised to close them by 2007 but had to backtrack following the blackout and new growth forecasts. However, the government still needs to find a way to replace the reliable power boost that coal plants can provide when the rest of the system is operating at maximum capacity.
Natural gas is one low-emission option. It accounts for about six per cent of Ontario's power supply but it is a non-renewable resource that has been going up in price because of demands elsewhere.
The more climate friendly ways of generating electricity, such as solar, hydroelectric, wind, biomass and nuclear all come with high start-up costs. Solar and wind have weather-dependant drawbacks.
Hydroelectric generation, which accounts for about 22 per cent of the province's energy, is low-emission but the most accessible sites have already been exploited.
Biomass production, which uses alcohols, ethers and other chemicals made from plant, agriculture and forestry residues, and municipal solid and industrial waste, are lower emission than fossil fuel and are renewable. But they can also release pollutants when burned.
Then there is nuclear
Finally, there's nuclear power, which produces between 50 and 60 per cent of Ontario's energy needs, depending on the daily requirement.
The province's three nuclear stations at Pickering, Darlington and Bruce Power (on Lake Huron) have a total of 20 CANDU reactors, 16 of them currently in operation.
Nuclear energy produces the "base" for the province's energy usage as these reactors are always generating and aren't turned off, except for maintenance.
Nuclear power is highly efficient, as one uranium dioxide pellet can produce as much energy as 400 tonnes of coal, and is low emission as far as greenhouse gases are concerned. But it's technology is very expensive and the construction of the most recent Darlington plants in the late 1980s, in a period of already high construction costs, is responsible for almost half of the the billions of dollars in debt that rate payers are still paying off.
Critics also cite the potential health and environmental concerns should there be a nuclear accident as well as the problem of what to do with the thousands of tonnes of leftover waste that will be radioactive for tens of thousands of years.
Despite the concerns with nuclear, it is expected to continue to play an important role in Ontario's electricity production through 2025. However, to do so, the province will need to replace or refurbish much of the current technology to maintain energy production at current levels.
The Canadian nuclear association has estimated that by 2020 the province will need to replace about 80 per cent of its total electrical generation technology or roughly 25,000 MW, about half of which is nuclear, because of growth in demand and aging plants.
So, the problem for government becomes not only meeting the new demand but also maintaining the current levels in the face of aging technology.
The political solutions
Ontario's energy future has been one of the important, if understated, themes of the campaign, though it has not had the same prominence as school funding or health care.
To meet the needs the Liberal plan is to shut down the coal power plants by 2014, a delay from their original plan to close them by 2007 and to encourage innovation in the energy sector.
Under Dalton McGuinty, 3,000 MW of new generation was added to the energy mix, with an additional 10,000 MW in the works. This new generation included renewable sources such as wind turbines and a solar farm near Sarnia as well as a commitment to two new nuclear reactors. "A reliable, healthy mix is going to have nuclear," McGuinty said during the recent leaders debate. "We're going to pursue conservation and renewables at the same time."
The Conservative leader John Tory pledged during his campaign to spend $1.3 billion on coal scrubbers to clean up the four coal-fired plants.
During the debate, he said his party would move quickly to increase the number of "reliable and greenhouse-gas free" nuclear power plants in the province to meet future energy needs and help curb the use of the coal plants. He said that while he was committed to exploring renewable energy options, the province will need more than the two additional nuclear plants the Liberals are promising.
He has also expressed an interest in seeing if private companies, such as Bruce Power, can both build and own these stations, which would be a first in Ontario.
The NDP energy platform would halt plans for nuclear expansion and focus on reducing consumption and boosting clean, renewable power.
If elected, Howard Hampton also plans to close the Nanticoke coal plant — considered the worst polluter of the four — by 2011. During the debate, Hampton cited Ontario's "sad history" with nuclear power and said that energy efficiency must be the central point of any energy program.
The Green Party plan focuses on reducing overall electricity usage by 20 per cent. If leader Frank de Jong were elected, the party would ban the construction and refurbishment of nuclear reactors and close the coal-fired plants by 2009, depending on whether consumers could reach energy reduction targets.
Norm Rubin, the director of nuclear research at Energy Probe, which is not a fan of nuclear energy, said Tory's coal plan makes sense. "Instead of arbitrarily choosing a shutdown date, we should be getting the emissions out of the air," he said. "Clean up the coal plants and run them less."
But he was critical of the Liberal and Tory plans for building more nuclear plants, especially since they could not replace lost generation from the closure of coal plants.
"Nuclear plants and coal plants provide different functions in the grid," he explained. "Coal is the backup, effective and dispatchable source. It, unlike nuclear power, can be shut down."
Energy Probe's view is that research and investment in renewable energy sources should be encouraged and that existing nuclear reactors should run until the end of their natural lives and not be rebuilt.
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