Randall Denley: Ontario politicians eager to phase out natural gas only have to look to Europe for the consequences

, Randall Denley: Ontario politicians eager to phase out natural gas only have to look to Europe for the consequences, The Evepost National News

If gas plants were shut down, there would be some pretty noticeable side effects

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For years, Ontario generated so much electrical power that it had to sell it, often at a loss, to neighbouring states and provinces. Now, the province’s ability to produce an adequate supply of reliable power is threatened by an increasing enthusiasm for eliminating natural gas plants that are critical to Ontario’s future.

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An environmental group called the Ontario Clean Air Alliance is demanding that natural gas power generation be phased out by 2030. It’s a predictable stance for an environmental group, but the worrying thing is that the alliance’s wobbly plan to replace natural gas has been endorsed by 32 municipalities, representing about 60 per cent of Ontario’s population. Among them are Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, Mississauga and Windsor. The federal Liberal, NDP and Green parties all promised zero emissions electricity in last month’s election.

Zero emissions electricity has to be taken seriously, not because it’s feasible in Ontario in this decade, but because it’s just the sort of simplistic idea that appeals to people who believe the planet will perish without just the right mix of government policies in Canada. These would be the same people who call for a future in which electricity powers all cars and home heating, but they want only their sort of electricity. That doesn’t include natural gas or emissions-free nuclear, which combined provide 62 per cent of Ontario’s generation capacity.

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Ontario’s power generation sector is a curious target for environmentalists, given that it is 94 per cent emissions free and produces only three per cent of the province’s greenhouse gas emissions. Ontario produces 81 per cent fewer carbon emissions per kilowatt hour than the rest of Canada. That’s due to the phase-out of coal plants under the former Liberal government. That move reduced the power sector’s emissions from 21 per cent of the overall amount, even if Ontarians did pay a steep premium for every part of it.

Some of that progress will be lost over this decade because the aging Pickering nuclear reactor is being phased out, reducing generation capacity by 14 per cent. Other reactors are up for refurbishment, meaning the province will have to rely more on natural gas for power generation. As a result, electricity system emissions will rise from an average of 4.4 megatonnes to between 10.9 and 12.2 megatonnes in 2030, the province’s Independent Electricity System operator estimates. That’s still only one-third what they were in 2005.

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The increasing reliance on gas has got the environmental group fired up, but its position is a bit complicated. It backed the coal conversion, naturally, but now it opposes the gas plants that support intermittent wind and solar power. It also opposes nuclear on the grounds of cost and safety.

One has to hand it to the clean air alliance. Lobbying municipalities to pressure for an end to natural gas power generation was a clever move. The average municipal politician is quick to rally to a good-sounding cause and knows squat about power generation.

The municipal pressure was sufficient for the IESO, the agency that plans and operates Ontario’s power system, to do a detailed evaluation of the phase-out plan. Its report last week was a rare but welcome combination of facts, figures and common sense.

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If gas plants were shut down by 2030, as the environmental group and myriad city councillors propose, there would be some pretty noticeable side effects. Those would include the need to spend $27 billion on alternative generation and transmission lines, plus additional operating costs of $5.7 billion a year, which would push the average homeowner’s bill up $100 a month. Oh, and there would also be rolling blackouts without the reliable natural gas power.

, Randall Denley: Ontario politicians eager to phase out natural gas only have to look to Europe for the consequences, The Evepost National News

None of that is slowing down the clean air alliance, which accuses the IESO of trying to scare the public. Its own plan relies on Quebec investing in wind and solar so that it can sell its own hydro power to Ontario, plus an emerging idea to draw power from electric car batteries.

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Despite the strong critique from the IESO, Energy Minister Todd Smith was diplomatic in his response. He wants the agency to develop a zero-emissions electricity plan that keeps cost in mind and won’t take place until after 2030.

Before they get too keen on phasing out gas plants, Ontario politicians might want to consider the situation in Europe. Countries there enthusiastically embraced wind and solar but then made the mistake of shutting down nuclear plants and not replacing coal power with sufficient natural gas. Now they find themselves short of power and the price is increasing sharply.

Ontario has avoided that fate, so far, but it’s never too late to do the wrong thing.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator, author and former Ontario PC candidate. Contact him at randalldenley1@gmail.com

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