Updated September 21, 2023 at 9:00 AM ET.
Ontario is abandoning plans to build a 198-megawatt gas power plant in the city of Thorold to supply peak power to the provincial grid, after local councillors voted unanimously Tuesday evening to reject the project.
“Minister [Todd] Smith’s direction on this matter is clear—all applications for new energy projects require community support through a municipal council resolution,” Energy Ministry spokesperson Michael Dodsworth told The Energy Mix in an email. “We have empowered local communities, and we respect the decision of Thorold town council to say no to new power generation in their community.”
Toronto-based Northland Power had proposed the plant as part of the province’s deeply controversial effort to add up to 1,500 MW of gas-fired generation to the grid. A directive from Smith to the province’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) had required municipal letters of endorsement for any new local projects, but not for capacity expansions at existing gas plants. The Thorold project, as a new installation to be built adjacent to an existing power plant, had to demonstrate local support.
That effort failed spectacularly Tuesday evening. On Monday, local organizer Mark Freeman said he could count four or five local councillors who were leaning against the project. Less than 48 hours later, all eight opposed it.
In the end, “a recorded vote took place that saw councillors unanimously vote against signing a letter of endorsement for the project,” Thorold Today reports. “When it was over, people in the audience erupted in loud applause.”
Northland is still on track to increase the capacity of its existing Thorold facility by 23 megawatts under an agreement published by the IESO in June.
Locals React to Local Pollution
Earlier Tuesday evening, in a prepared presentation to council, Northland Power representatives Salvatore Provvidenza and Shahid Khan said a peak power plant in Thorold would be expected to run only 1% to 5% of the time, emitting 10,000 to 50,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year. But Thorold Today says Thorold South resident Don Morley “made a real impression on councillors” with his account of living next to the community’s existing gas plant.
“I can’t begin to express the concern I have for the particulates that are currently falling,” he said. “The pollution that’s being pumped out now will only be greater, not less. There are many citizens out there that deserve better.”
Early on, the Thorold peaker plant was touted as a project that would run on renewable natural gas (RNG). In their presentation, Provvidenza and Khan described RNG as a “carbon-neutral fuel that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, by capturing otherwise released methane from decaying organic feedstocks, and adding utility to its combustion.”
But in the lead-up to the council vote, Freeman said Monday, it became clear that Northland was only proposing to offset its local emissions by paying a subsidiary of Enbridge Gas to supply cleaner gas somewhere else in the provincial pipeline system, leaving local air quality issues unaddressed.
For Thorold residents, that would have meant that “they’re still going to burn gas,” he said. “There’s still going to be pollution. There’s still going to be black carbon. There’s still going to be smog. All the bad things that happen when you burn and leak methane.”
In an email, Northland explained that RNG “is produced from methane that would have otherwise been released into the atmosphere as a result of human activity (including capturing methane from agricultural waste, yes).” So “converting this methane (RNG) into CO2 through the combustion process significantly lessens its impact to the environment. Northland Power will purchase 100% of the project’s consumption requirements from Ontario RNG producers/marketers.”
Find Another Way
The opposition to the plant brought together three separate lines of argument, Freeman said. Some residents were concerned about local air pollution, or opposed construction of a new gas plant in the midst of a climate emergency—but the third argument was economic. Generating more electricity from “non-clean sources” would have a “devastating effect on the economy of the Niagara region, which is pretty clean right now,” he explained. “Companies that want to move into the region are looking for clean energy, and this is going to kill opportunities to attract those businesses.”
That last issue was particularly important, Freeman said, because “Thorold is not a wealthy area, so their primary concern is living week to week.”
When it was councillors’ turn to have their say, three of the eight “made it clear that they are very concerned about and want to take action against climate change, while all of the councillors stressed the need to protect local residents from increased air pollution,” Freeman wrote in a meeting summary. “Two councillors stated that they do not believe in climate change or [in] mitigating solutions, however they opposed the project regardless. The mayor summed it up by saying the council meeting was a great example of democracy in action, where opposing sides spoke civilly about their reasons to support or oppose the project.”
A couple of the councillors asked Northland to come back to the city with an “alternative proposal” to meet the IESO’s need for new supply with a renewable energy or energy storage project, Freeman said.
“At the end of the day, I saw the residents of Thorold, along with Thorold City Council, sending a clear message to the Ontario government, with a not-so-subtle request to find another way to meet Ontario’s energy demands,” he wrote. “We do not want to continue with the status quo, increasing our GHG emissions and air pollution. We want a forward-thinking government doing the right things for the right reasons.”
Earlier this year, analysis by Environmental Defence Canada pointed to the gas plants in Toronto, Halton Hills, and Brampton as their communities’ biggest sources of climate pollution. The Halton Hills Gas Plant, Toronto’s Portlands plant, and Brampton’s Goreways facility placed second, fourth, and fifth on the list of greenhouse gas emitters in the Greater Toronto Area, and they’re all major sources of nitrous oxide, a climate super-pollutant 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide that is also a human health hazard.
This week, the Ministry of Energy’s Dodsworth bragged that Ontario has “empowered” city councils to accept or reject new power plant proposals, “unlike the previous government which forced new energy projects on unwilling communities”. But neither the Ministry nor the IESO responded to emailed questions on whether the IESO’s decision to expand capacity and resulting emissions at the Brampton, Halton Hills, and Toronto plants would have generated community pushback like Thorold’s if Smith’s original directive had enabled those communities to make their own choices. Toronto city council has voted twice to oppose the Portlands expansion.
Critics in Thorold and elsewhere say Ontario’s gas peaker plan will significantly drive up the province’s climate pollution, undercutting Canada’s ability to meet national climate targets. They’re also concerned that ratepayers could be left with C$4 billion in costs for gas plants that will never be used, given the potential for solar, energy storage, and other distributed energy resources to help meet peak demand.
In an email, Northland Power told The Mix the Thorold peaker plant would not have been financially viable without that guaranteed revenue stream, in the form of standby capacity payments from the province. “Like almost all electricity generation in Ontario, including renewables, thermal facilities (gas plants) require offtake agreements with the IESO,” said Northland, a company whose long history in renewables and now energy storage was acknowledged by at least one of its opponents during Tuesday night’s council meeting.
The IESO said it will be launching a new procurement later this month “to acquire new capacity necessary to meet Ontario’s growing electricity demands, including approximately 1,600 MW from storage and up to about 900 MW from non-storage resources,” and those power purchases will require approvals by local councils. “Already we have seen strong interest from proponents in this competitive process,” a spokesperson wrote.
A Northland Power spokesperson said the company “is active in the Ontario electricity market” and plans to participate in future procurements for both renewable generation and energy storage.
Earlier this year, analysis by Clean Energy Canada concluded that solar and wind farms are already less expensive to build and operate than gas plants in both Ontario and Alberta, with solar costs on track to fall another 40% by 2035.