Ontario is one of the many jurisdictions across North America grappling with the urgent need for more affordable housing, devastating and accelerating climate change impacts, and a persistent electricity shortage that seems set to drive carbon emissions higher.
But the province is just beginning to ask a question that some other places have been considering more carefully: what if the first step to delivering on our most immediate needs—affordable homes, safety in the next storm, cooling to get through the next heat wave, a power supply we can count on—is to tackle them together with a single set of common-sense energy choices?
Ontario has announced major investments in non-renewable power projects, including a long-term bet on new nuclear plants. But there’s still time to embrace energy efficiency and smaller renewable- energy options (also known as distributed energy resources, or DERs) as cost-effective, quicker-to-deploy approaches to community resilience. These include rooftop solar panels, small-scale wind turbines and battery storage.
As cities in Canada’s largest province prepare to face more than 50 days with a humidex over 35°C, our vulnerability in summer is alarmingly clear, especially for seniors. Better air sealing and filtration in buildings and shifting away from natural gas can also improve indoor air quality and health, while lowering utility bills.
Today’s power grid was never meant to meet challenges like volatile natural gas prices, more frequent severe weather, rapid population growth, or the pressing need to decarbonize. Nor was it designed to capitalize on the massive opportunity to deliver more reliable, cheaper, cleaner electricity by shifting to smaller, renewable energy sources that generate power closer to where it’s needed.
That’s why it’s time for Ontario decision-makers—public, private, and community—to make the visionary decision to rethink and reinforce our top-down grid from the bottom up.
1. Make energy efficiency the starting point.
Nobody wants to waste money or see low return on public investments. Whether you’re battling your home heating bill, looking over your company balance sheet, or planning the power grid of the future, energy efficiency is the gift that keeps on giving. In fact, the Canadian Climate Institute’s latest analysis shows average household energy savings of 12% through 2050 as the system electrifies.
And there are big wins for the power grid. The Atmospheric Fund found that Ontario could save C$9.5 billion by maximizing energy efficiency instead of relying more heavily on natural gas power plants. The Royal Bank of Canada Climate Action Institute concluded that timely conservation could save enough electricity to power three million homes by 2045 and save ratepayers $500 million per year.
2. Build new electrical generation closer to demand.
The surest way to decarbonize energy is to shift heating and cooling, transportation, and industrial processes from fossil fuels to electricity. But the need for a major increase in generating capacity has produced eye-popping cost figures in the tens of billions of dollars that may mean burning more natural gas and increasing carbon pollution.
Installing DERs like solar, microgrids, and energy storage closer to where they’re needed can cut losses from power outages 20% while delivering a 5:1 benefit-to-cost ratio on the investment. DERs coupled with deep efficiency help the electricity system control costs, boost reliability, clear grid bottlenecks, ensure business continuity, and keep the lights on.
A recent Independent Electricity System Operator report found that efficiency and DERs could completely clear the province’s projected electricity shortage over the next decade, eliminating the need for new gas-fired power plants. And Ontario wind and solar farms with battery backup are already cheaper to build than new gas plants. If anything, Ontario is likely to run out of demand for gas-fired electricity during the operating life of today’s power plants, and plant owners will find their assets stranded—unless taxpayers pick up the tab.
3. Make grid reliability a priority.
Ontario’s existing electricity system has served most of us pretty well for more than a century. But it must evolve as we navigate an era of high costs, severe resilience challenges, and the opportunity to embrace more affordable, distributed generation options. For businesses, the cost of those outages averages $100,000 per hour—adding up to billions in economy-wide losses. And climate change is a threat multiplier to the key risk factors for power system failures.
The grid is an aging system in need of refurbishment and reinvestment. But that’s the opportunity of a lifetime: Ontario can direct those dollars to building a modernized grid that emphasizes energy efficiency and distributed generation. The right choices now will deliver returns for generations to come.
4. Integrate and scale the best solutions at the neighbourhood level.
We can hit our net-zero targets if we apply all the tools and technologies in our carbon reduction toolbox, pick the ones that deliver the fastest, best results at lowest cost, and scale them up.
Until now, options like energy retrofits, heat pumps, battery storage, and rooftop solar have mostly been directed to individual households. But we’ll see the fastest gains, highest financial returns, and greatest contributions to local resilience when we scale those solutions to whole neighbourhoods.
That’s where options like mass, deep building retrofits, geoexchange, district energy, microgrids, wastewater energy transfer, community solar farms, and electric vehicle hubs move from interesting concept to practical reality. They’ll need new approaches to financing and project management, and deep collaboration among communities, governments, and businesses.
And the neighbourhood scale is where we can ramp up efficient travel choices. Sprawling development can double or triple driving, tailpipe emissions, and household transportation costs. With many of us working at home, the need for more “complete”, walkable neighbourhoods where we can quickly access most of our daily needs has never been greater. Municipal and provincial policies that bolster infill housing deliver strong economic, climate, and community benefits and can increase housing affordability—and business is onboard.
5. Get prepared and plan ahead.
Anyone who’s lived through the latest storm, flooded basement, heatwave, power outage, or wildfire-driven smoke alert will want to be fully prepared for the next one. And we must plan wisely to minimize costs and maximize economic and community benefits: improved energy affordability, local jobs for retrofits and renewables, reduced business interruption, better health, and fewer heat-related deaths.
The evidence is clear. The economic case is compelling. The community benefits are impressive. As we plan our future energy systems, let’s maximize both ROIs: return on investment and resilience of investment.
This post first appeared on Corporate Knights. Republished by permission.
[Disclosure: Energy Mix Productions provides editorial services to the Ottawa Climate Action Fund.]