Community action is the only possible antidote to a provincial energy plan in Ontario that sidelines renewable energy in favour of costly fossil fuels, Corporate Knights Research Director Ralph Torrie told a recent webinar.
“We cannot get through this without the active engagement of local governments,” Torrie told participants. Just as Thorold city councillors voted unanimously to reject plans for a new gas peaker plant in their city, he said local governments largely determine the level of greenhouse gas emissions in their communities.
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The local level is where people “will feel the brunt of the floods, the storms, and the fires” if action is not taken, so it is these local communities that have the agency to “turn this around,” Torrie added. He pointed to Ontario’s existing electricity systems as an example, noted that the current provincial grid was brought into being more than100 years ago thanks to grassroot initiatives and leadership.
But we are now at pivotal moment, Torrie said, likening the pressing need for decarbonization to another historical turning point, the Copernican Revolution. Then, the widely accepted model of an Earth-centred universe shifted to a Sun-centred one. Today, “we’ve had to rethink where we belong in the scheme of things.”
That shift will mean recognizing that the human economy is contained within larger contexts of society and environment. Otherwise, we’ll see mounting consequences like the climate impacts of this summer—extreme weather events, heatwaves, and wildfires—in an unbalanced natural world trying to bring itself back into balance.
Torrie said economic growth decoupled from energy use and emissions around the 1970s, shooting up on its own trajectory. But many of the planners now in charge of Ontario’s electricity system grew up and were educated during an unusual time when electricity growth was just as unbounded, leading a whole generation of utility planners to assume that constant electricity growth is necessary for a healthy economy.
That assumption is out of step with reality, Torrie argued. There’s wide agreement that electricity will be at the centre of the province’s transition off carbon, but there is also a wide gap between the responses framed by Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) and those included in community-based strategies.
Rather than scaling up energy supplies, there is a pressing need to reduce the energy intensity of how we provide services and amenities, Torrie explained. The technology is available and the co-benefits of low-carbon solutions are of great value, but there are also complications, beginning with a culture of resistance to the capital demands of low-carbon power projects.
“I don’t understand why this is an issue,” Torrie said. “When did we ever shy away from things because they were capital intensive? It didn’t stop us from building the railroad or the highway system, or the oil sands, or all of the other infrastructure that we’ve got.”
Which means that “we just have to get on with it—with regard to these big capital-intensive transitions that are required to get off fossil fuels.”
The IESO projects that Ontario will need 69 gigawatts of new grid capacity by 2050 to accommodate the electrification shift, at a cost of C$375 to $425 billion, Torrie said he remained skeptical of that estimate, citing past plans that called for rapidly increases in capacity that never came to fruition as public concerns shifted.
“We’ve had a history in this province of what I call ‘gap-ology,’ where a forecast gets put forward suggesting that we’ve got to right away start building like there’s no tomorrow if we’re going to keep the lights on,” he said. “And then the demand doesn’t materialize because the forecast was wrong.”
Torrie said actions by communities can help dampen increases in demand, noting that local planners can take a broader view of energy systems and consider other factors, like energy efficiency and reducing vehicle use. Approaching energy systems change from this perspective paints a very different picture of future demand.
“The transition to electricity—if it’s done cleverly, if it’s done in concert with efficiency and conservation and so on—it does not necessarily have to ‘blow the grid.’”
But the province won’t be able to execute such a clever transition without the active engagement of local governments, he stressed. With a great deal of variation in communities’ in emissions profiles and mitigation efforts, those local initiatives will depend on targeted public education and support for municipal agency, Torrie says. There is still not enough understanding of climate change to propel community action, and wider outreach is needed to help communities become effective agents for change.
But none of this is new, Torrie concluded, noting that the establishment of public power in Ontario was largely achieved by champions of municipal and local government issues, like streetcars. But the system has since been privatized and restructured, “and is really no longer working in the interests of the people of Ontario.”
He said the difference between the IESO’s decarbonization strategy and the visions in local government climate action plans is “night and day”, with communities following bottom-up strategies that incorporate distributed solar and wind, microgrids, and built-out electric vehicle charging with virtual power plant technology.
“All of those things yield a low-carbon future, which is cheaper, more community friendly, and much more aligned with a historical principle that has guided electricity development in Ontario—that the province should be there to serve the communities and the municipalities and the people,” Torrie said. “We’ve got to take that back.”