Ontario voters are sleeping on hydro policy in 2020. They shouldn’t be

The future is coming for us all — and the province needs to figure out how we’re going to power it
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Feb 25, 2020
The government will have to make a decision about whether to extend the lifespan of the Pickering Generating Station by one year. (Frank Gunn/CP)



In this week’s episode of TVO.org’s Political Blind Date, two MPPs agree that high electricity prices are a major problem facing Ontario. But they don’t agree on what caused it. Was it the Liberal government’s exorbitant spending on green-energy initiatives — most notoriously, wind-power projects in rural southwestern Ontario? Or was it the encroachment of private, for-profit corporations in provincial electricity generation, an area that was once entirely in public hands?

The good news for NDP MPP Peter Tabuns and Progressive Conservative associate minister of energy Bill Walker is that, fundamentally, they agree that the Liberals are to blame. The two genial MPPs can at least have a reasonably civil day out together.

The thing is, we’re likely in for a relatively calm period in Ontario’s energy politics, with the caveat that “relatively” is doing a lot of work in that sentence. The people who spent the years of Liberal rule screaming about high electricity prices have gone quiet, even though the Tories aren’t particularly close to keeping their promise of cutting hydro rates by 12 per cent. Indeed, just keeping prices stable in real terms has cost the government $1.6 billion more than planned. And the biggest part of the energy sector — the province’s nuclear sector — is well into its refurbishment process, which will lock the majority of Ontario’s electricity supply in place until the 2060s.

Perhaps the biggest potential lightning rod will be the decision about whether to extend the lifespan of the Pickering Generating Station by one year, but that’s it: the difference is between shutting the obsolescent plant in 2024 or 2025. People will undoubtedly try to gin up a firestorm about the decision one way or another, but it’s hardly the stuff revolutions are made of.

If Ontario is, in fact, in a period of relative quiet, we might as well use the time for reflection. Because the future is still coming for us all, and it’s going to ask a lot more of the electricity sector — so we should be ready for it.

Let’s start with electric vehicles. While they’re undoubtedly more efficient than internal-combustion engines, they pose a real problem for the electricity system. While utilities such as Ontario Power Generation and Hydro One are excited about the new business opportunity — the two companies just launched a joint venture to build new fast-charging stations around the province — it’s also true that the potential demand from hundreds of thousands of cars looking for a quick charge could strain the power grid if it’s not managed carefully.

But electric vehicles aren’t the only big thing we’ll be asking the power system to accommodate in the future. As economies look to wrestle greenhouse-gas emissions to the floor, we’ll also need to replace the natural gas, oil, and propane currently used to heat homes and offices — eventually, we’ll have to replace natural gas in industry, too. The natural-gas industry is terrified of this prospect, as it will effectively engineer it out of business, but it’s pretty simple: we know how to build near-zero-GHG electricity at scale — and we can’t say that about even the cleanest fossil fuels.

That’s the next frontier of electricity policy for the province, as Ontario succeeded in closing its coal-fired power plants (thereby implementing Canada’s single most successful climate policy). But the legacy of those coal-plant closures — including rapidly increasing hydro costs — must necessarily shape what comes next. If we can agree that widescale electrification is the way forward, how exactly do we make it happen? Should the province continue to invest in nuclear power? Or should we try, yet again, to pivot to renewables, such as wind and solar, to power the next generation?

Even asking the question assumes that, in the near future, Ontario voters will have the appetite for an electricity policy that isn’t the status quo, and that’s a big assumption. It’s entirely possible that the bad taste the Liberal experiment in renewables left in voters’ mouths won’t wash out in one election cycle, or even in two or three. Such a result would undoubtedly disappoint someone like Peter Tabuns. But even if voters were willing to give renewables another shot, there’s probably no reason for the nuclear industry to worry: the future demand for electricity will be high enough that there’ll be room enough for both.

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