Despite ascertations made in a recent report entitled "Renewable is Doable", Ontario cannot afford to underpin its energy future simply on what is "doable". Certainty is needed, and that's why nuclear and gas-fired power must be part of our future energy mix. And because even certainty requires insurance, don't put out the lights on the "c" word in electricity just yet.
Following the release of the joint analysis "Renewable is Doable" by the Pembina Institute and WWF–Canada, WWF–Canada climate change campaign chair, Keith Stewart, suggested that the lights can be kept on without coal or nuclear power and that more localized renewable energy projects would be more efficient since they will reduce the amount of energy lost through transmission. Despite the widespread perception, the unfortunate reality for Ontarians is that we are not blessed with the geography of Quebec, and so do not have an abundance of water power. Moreover, most of our renewable energy, in the form of water and wind, is either in remote areas of the province and very expensive to develop in small quantities for nearby consumption, or subject to enormous transmission costs to move it to urban centres. While the sun shines and the wind blows in Ontario, these natural wonders do not occur with the consistency needed to power our sophisticated economy on their own; nor does the solar power technology exist to convert sunlight into electricity cheaply enough in the quantities needed.
Currently, Ontario manages with a diverse supply of fuel sources for electricity generation broken out as follows: water power – 26%; other renewables (wind, solar etc.) – 1%; fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil) – 32%; and nuclear power – 41%.
Last summer, on August 1, 2006, Ontario achieved its record power demand at 27,005 megawatts (MW), which the province weathered well. To give this number some context, the nameplate capacity for water power generated at the Sir Adam Beck facilities in Niagara Falls is 2,000 MW and the total installed capacity of water power in the province is 8,150 MW. Add to this all other forms of renewable energy and the installed capacity of renewable energy is less than 9,000 MW. On that August 1st, the lights remained on with all of our diverse supply running at full tilt, and not without a little help from our transmission lines importing power also generated from a variety of fuel sources.
While high peaking days like August 1st cause unique challenges and grab headlines with public appeals for consumption cut-backs, these peaks float above the steady and steadily increasing (calculated at about 1% per year) loads which are the engines of our economy. These loads require large amounts of consistently dependable and affordable power. Add to this that, due to demand growth and generation retirement, by 2025 there will be a gap equal to approximately 80% of Ontario's current installed generation capacity, it's obvious that the Ontario electricity landscape is anything but static.
So can Ontarians look forward to counting solely on renewable energy sources and conservation to keep our system – and economy – unfalteringly humming? Absolutely not, at least anytime soon. Ontario needs not only clean power, but it needs enough electricity available at all hours of every day for boiling water in our kitchens and powering boilers in our factories. Those in the exclusively renewable camp and those in the anti-nuclear camp often join forces and point to Germany as a jurisdiction with a highly productive economy that has a multi-party agreement to banish nuclear power plants within its borders by 2021. What rarely gets mentioned is that a key to Germany's plan is a significant reliance on coal and the hope of clean coal-fired plants in the future. In the meantime, Germany is subsidizing the construction of new coal plants through carbon-credit subsidies while about 40 coal-fired generators are on the planning books without any provision for capturing greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, most energy experts predict that once the nuclear plants are gone in Germany, the country will import significant amounts of power from France, a country that produces about 80% of its electricity from nuclear power plants.
The clichéd complaints about building new non-renewable sources of power are that they are expensive, require long lead times to be brought into service and make or leave large environmental footprints. While in part these criticisms are true, unfortunately, they are true for new renewable power too. An oft-suggested solution for Ontario is that it simply purchase large amounts of renewable energy from the provinces which have it. As can be expected, however, these jurisdictions have the interests of their own constituents to protect and the power is not offered to Ontario at Boxing Day prices. Ontario must compete to purchase this power and competition for a limited supply of a good thing drives prices up.
Moreover, like non-renewable power plants, renewable projects require billions of dollars of infrastructure investment for the necessary dams, access roads, turbines, powerhouses and thousands of kilometres of high voltage transmission lines. Lay over top of this the fact that people everywhere seem to want clean power but no one seems willing to have the attendant infrastructure situated near them: some people even go so far as to cloak their particular self-interested concerns as environmental ones. All of this makes for long delays for project proponents to obtain the multitudes of necessary permits and approvals.
Adding to the complexity is a facto that usually applies more to new renewable projects than non-renewable ones: in many instances, the sites for the best renewable supply are situated in lands over which First Nations claim traditional territory rights or treaty rights or both. While many First Nation communities are in favour of development in their traditional territories, they too may not speak with a united voice. They too may be divided over whether there should be development over their traditional lands and, if so, how much and on what conditions.
Lastly, in considering environmental footprints, to supply Ontario's high-powered economy with exclusive or even primarily renewable power, the new footprint may make it look like we've been taking only baby steps all along. There would need to be a wholesale transformation of the landscape – including damming and flooding massive tracts of land, multiple forests of massive wind turbines and the blanketing of vast acres of prime farmland withsolar panels. Already, there is no shortage of resistance in Ontario by people who do not want wind and solar generation plants built near them.
For Ontario to meet its demand for sources of inexpensive reliable electricity, there simply is no silver bullet fuel. Ontario must continue on its intended path to craft a supply mix that trades among the advantages and disadvantages of available fuel sources. Each of nuclear, natural gas, water, wind, solar, biomass and conservation have their place in our energy future. And while the "c" fuel is sought to be ushered out the door as fast as we can bid it farewell, the fact is that its infrastructure is in place, it's reliable, cheap and abundant. Be prepared for the fact that coal may keep the compact fluorescents glowing white, and the rooms cool day and night, while the people fight to put the renewables and non-renewables alike in somebody else's backyard.