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Ontario’s Green Energy Debate: Three Points to Consider

March 10, 2011

The Ontario government’s surprise decision to place a moratorium on offshore wind power development has again put the spotlight on the province’s Green Energy Act and the McGuinty government’s overall approach to electricity issues. While the 2009 legislation is not without its flaws, the debate about the role of renewable energy in the province’s future seems to have lost track of three essential points.

First, any discussion of the alleged health and environmental effects of wind turbines must consider the impacts of the energy sources that would need to be built or retained if we do not pursue the large-scale development of wind energy. Recent analyses attribute over 300 premature deaths per year in Ontario to air pollution from coal-fired electricity (down from 660 per year when coal use was at its height a few years ago). The upstream impacts and risks of coal mining, ranging from the occupational risks of underground mining to the destruction and consumption of entire landscapes via open-pit or mountaintop removal mining, must be considered as well.

Nuclear power carries with it enormous cost, security and weapons proliferation risks. It is also associated with extremely hazardous up and downstream wastes streams that will require management and care over hundreds of thousands of years. The extensive contamination of biota and surface and groundwater around uranium mine-mill operations with radioactive, toxic and conventional pollutants results, among other things, in significantly elevated cancer risks for consumers of ‘country’ food near such facilities.

By comparison, the biophysical impacts of wind turbines, for which the evidence in the formal literature is decidedly thin despite two decades of large-scale deployments in the densely populated landscapes of Western Europe, look rather less serious. Leaving aside the utterly ridiculous notion that wind turbines located far offshore could constitute some sort of threat to the province’s drinking water, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health has noted that “the scientific evidence available to date does not demonstrate a causal link between wind turbine noise and averse health effects.” If we are to build more sustainable energy systems, then low impact renewable energy sources like wind will have to play a major role in the process

Secondly, with respect to costs, it is important to remember that the current market electricity price bears no relationship to the actual costs of providing the new sources of electricity needed to replace the province’s aging nuclear and coal plants. Compared to the current market price of 3.13 cents per kilowatt-hour, 13.5 cents for wind power under the Green Energy Act Feed in Tariff Program sounds excessive. But compared with the likely costs of new build nuclear facilities that emerged from the province’s efforts to procure new reactors of somewhere in the range of at least 20 cents per kilowatt hour, it starts to look very reasonable. The reality is that all of the available sources of new supply, with the exception of conservation, will cost more. The government does deserve some credit for attempting to be honest about that reality.

That said, those who are concerned about future costs should be far more upset about the government’s unwavering commitment to 50 per cent of the province’s future electricity supply coming from nuclear power. Based on what we have learned from the province’s procurement efforts and the rebuilding projects at Bruce and Pickering, the government’s estimated $33 billion cost for the nuclear component of its “Long-Term Energy Plan’ can only be regarded as wildly optimistic. Moreover, there are increasingly serious questions about the capacity of the province’s would-be nuclear suppliers Areva of France and Atomic Energy of Canada, to present viable new bids in the foreseeable future.

Third, it is important to consider that the goals of the Green Energy Act extended well beyond providing new supplies of electricity. The act was very much a product of a decision by the province to embrace the concept of building a ‘green’ technology sector, particularly the manufacturing of renewable energy technologies like wind turbines and solar panels, as part of its response the climate change issue, public concern over environmental issues and the 2008 economic downturn.

Unfortunately, other jurisdictions who found themselves in the same situation, including many of Ontario’s neighbours on the US side of the Great Lakes had exactly the same idea at the same time. If the province’s strategy was going to succeed, Ontario needed to get a competitive ‘jump’ on these jurisdictions, creating a critical mass of activity and investment around renewable energy before they did. The Green Energy Act’s Feed-in Tariff mechanism provided the means to do that, prompting investment commitments in the range of $8 billion in renewable energy. The uncertainty promoted by the government’s reversals on renewable energy now threatens to undermine that advantage.

GEA is neither the cause nor the solution to all of the problems facing the Ontario’s electricity system. The province still needs to have a serious conversation about the system’s future direction in the face of rapidly changing circumstances, something which none of the province’s party leaders have offered Ontario residents so far in this election year.

Mark Winfield is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at York University and Co-Chair of the University’s Sustainable Energy Initiative

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