Ontario is on track for a 375% increase in power sector emissions between 2017 and 2030 if it carries through with a plan to increase its reliance on natural gas power plants, concludes an analysis of the Annual Planning Outlook published last month by the province’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO).
That assessment adds up to some “very bad news” on greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, and the future cost of electricity, write Mark Winfield co-chair of York University’s Sustainable Energy Initiative, and Colleen Kaiser, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa, in a post for the Hamilton Spectator.
“The directions laid out in the report also present major challenges to the federal government’s plans to move the electricity sector to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035,” they warn.
The article appeared just a couple of weeks ahead of an in-depth interview with Ontario Environment Minister David Piccini, published by the new Ontario bureau of The Narwhal, in which the Northumberland-Peterborough South MPP defended the Ford government’s record on issues from highway construction in the Greenbelt to the path to a greener economy. “Don’t hold me to things that were 2018, ‘19, two years ago. That was a snapshot in time,” he said. “If you could say, ‘You have made no announceables, you have done nothing,’ then fair criticism. But I can point tangibly… to massive announcements.”
Winfield and Kaiser lay out the rather longer snapshot in time in the IESO Annual Planning Outlook, the latest edition of a report in which the provincial agency “forecasts electricity demand, assesses the reliability of the electricity system, identifies capacity and energy needs, and explores the province’s ability to meet them.” A shortfall in provincial electricity supply was foreseeable, given plans to either retire or refurbish Ontario’s aging nuclear power plants. But that didn’t stop the Ford government from cancelling a completed wind farm and breaking 758 smaller renewable energy supply contracts when it took office in 2018, at a cost that was later estimated at C$231 million.
With Ontario now turning to fossil gas to fill the gap, “by the late 2030s electricity-related GHG emissions are projected to be 600% above 2017 levels, with the curve continuing upwards from there,” Winfield and Kaiser write. “Gas-fired generation is projected to account for a quarter of the province’s electricity generation by the late 2040—more than triple its current role,” and roughly the same as coal-fired electricity in its heyday. “Along with the increases in GHG emissions, there would be proportional increases in emissions from gas-fired plants of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, important smog precursors, concerns over which were major drivers of the coal phaseout.”
The trajectory in outlook makes Ontario the only Canadian province “that seems to be planning on major increases in its electricity-related emissions,” they add. “The reasons why Ontario has found itself in this situation lie, not surprisingly, at the feet of the Ford government, although its Liberal predecessors are due some of the blame as well.”
The two authors say the province “has no planning or regulatory framework” to shape the future of the electricity system or address the climate emergency, yet “largely abandoned” a comprehensive energy efficiency strategy in 2019 after shutting down the renewable energy contracts. The government “gives no indication of being willing to revisit that question, even as the costs of renewables and energy storage technologies, continue to fall,” and hasn’t responded to Quebec’s “repeated overtures” on electricity imports from its existing large hydro plants.
After Ford fought and won the last provincial election largely by using electricity prices as a campaign issue, Winfield and Kaiser say Ontarians can look forward to “more bad news” in their power bills. The IESO report “arrives as North American natural gas prices are showing a dramatic rise from their recent historic lows,” they write. “That can only translate into higher electricity costs for Ontario consumers,” particularly as the new federal carbon pricing regime pushes the cost of gas-fired generation even higher.