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Op-Ed: Stop making green power the scapegoat

This article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on December 16, 2013

By Tim Gray

Green power makes a great scapegoat for rising electricity bills in Ontario. The only problem is that this is a myth based on a jumble of dubious assumptions rather than facts.

Electricity rates are projected to rise overall at two per cent per year over the next 20 years. Hardly an economic catastrophe. Subsidies for nuclear power pushed up our electricity generation costs by 43 per cent last year and now Ontario Power Generation is asking the Ontario Energy Board for a further 30-per-cent increase in the rate it is paid for power from its nuclear plants to start paying for rebuilding the Darlington Nuclear Station. Meanwhile, an independent study produced for Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator showed that support for wind and solar pushed up Ontario’s electricity generation costs by only 10.5 per cent last year. Today, wind and solar produce just four per cent of Ontario’s electricity, so blaming them for rising rates is like blaming the cookie you ate for all your weight gain.

The real reason electricity bills in Ontario are on the rise is our overbuilt and unreliable nuclear system (with Pickering A being the most expensive nuclear plant to operate in North America). Ontario energy planners have a long history of over-estimating future electricity usage to justify expensive nuclear mega-projects. The result is that today we have a system that is poorly suited to our rapidly changing energy needs and new technology developments, like highly efficient LED lighting or energy-saving pumps and motors. This is why it is good news that Ontario’s new Long Term Energy Plan anticipates a lower demand future where less nuclear will be needed.

While some suggest that controlling the output of wind turbines is a problem, cutting off a windmill takes minutes. To the contrary, try throttling back a nuclear reactor when its power isn’t really needed; it takes days. That’s why we have been paying Bruce Nuclear Power millions of dollars to waste energy by shooting steam into the atmosphere instead of using it to generate power, therefore adding to electricity prices.

There’s also an erroneous assumption that costly gas plants were built to back up wind and solar power. If that was our gas plants’ main job, we might have one or two of them. But we really have gas plants for two other reasons: to meet the surge in demand for power on hot sunny summer days and to produce power when nuclear reactors are shut down for repairs (which happens all too frequently in Ontario and was the reason coal-fired electricity generation surged 120 per cent between 1995 and 2003). The good news is that we have an alternative solution. Instead of using costly gas plants to produce power on hot smoggy summer days, we could use solar power, which peaks in output exactly when we need it most. And it is often cheaper (yes, cheaper) than what we pay for power from those gas plants, which can cost over $1 a kilowatt hour (plus greenhouse gas emissions). Germany is now meeting almost all of its peak demand on summer days with solar panels. It just makes sense.

We have a climate crisis on our hands, folks, and it is long past time to start dealing with it. Turning to new nuclear power as a solution is just a way of once again pushing action off into the future: It will take decades to fully rebuild Ontario’s fleet of aging nuclear reactors and the costs will be astronomical. Let’s remember, no nuclear project in Ontario’s history has ever been finished on time or on budget, which is why we have that debt retirement charge on our hydro bill and why every cent of provincial income tax paid by local utilities, Ontario Power Generation and Hydro One goes to paying down this debt instead of to building schools or hospitals.

But the real issue is: where is the world headed on energy? The only sources of electricity where costs are falling is for renewable technologies like wind and solar. And they are falling so fast that major banks, like U.S. giant Citigroup, are warning their clients that traditional power producers (fossil fuel and nuclear) may soon be unable to compete.

So do we want to go back to yesterday’s solutions while the rest of the world puts the pedal to the metal on the transition to modern, cleaner sources of electricity? Or do we want a modern energy strategy that can keep our costs in check over the long term and benefit our environment?

Ontario’s approach is not perfect but it is headed in the right direction.

Tim Gray is executive director of Environmental Defence.

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