Skip to main content

Ontario on track to see major increases in greenhouse gas emissions Add pollution and costs from electricity generation to that list too

Published in the Hamilton Spectator, December 19, 2021

Mark Winfield and Colleen Kaiser

The Ontario Independent Electricity System Operator’s (IESO) Annual Planning Outlook report released last week contains some very bad news for Ontarians in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, air quality, and future electricity costs. The directions laid out in the report also present major challenges to the federal’s government’s plans to move the electricity sector to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.

The report makes it clear that Ontario is on track to see between a 375 per cent growth in GHG emissions in its electricity-related emissions by 2030 relative to 2017, as natural gas-fired power plants are ramped up to replace nuclear facilities facing retirement or being taken out of service for refurbishment.

By the late 2030s electricity related GHG emissions are projected to be 600 per cent above 2017 levels, with the curve continuing upwards from there. Gas-fired generation is projected to account for a quarter of the province’s electricity generation by the late 2040 – more than triple its current role. That would be roughly the same portion as coal-fired generation at its peak, before its phase-out in 2013. Along with the increases in GHG emissions, there would be proportional increases in emissions from gas-fired plants of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, important smog precursors, concerns over which were major drivers of the coal phase-out.

The situation gives Ontario the unique status within Canada of being the only province that seems to be planning on major increases in its electricity-related emissions. The reasons why Ontario has found itself in this situation lie, not surprisingly, at the feet of the Ford government, although its Liberal predecessors are due some of the blame as well.

As it stands now, the province has no planning or regulatory framework around the future direction of its electricity system, or, more broadly, how it is going to address climate change. At the same time, it has turned its back on potential alternatives to the carbon and pollution-intensive pathway the IESO has laid out. The province’s relatively comprehensive and effective strategy around energy efficiency was largely abandoned in 2019. The government, having spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars cancelling and in some cases dismantling renewable energy projects, gives no indication of being willing to revisit that question, even as the costs of renewables and energy storage technologies, continue to fall.

Despite repeated overtures from Quebec’s Premier Legault to strengthen the province’s relationship with Quebec’s hydro-electric resources, Ontario continues to show no interest in that pathway. A conversation with the province’s next-door neighbour could be particularly timely, as Hydro-Quebec has recently run into increasing difficulty expanding its hydroelectricity exports to the United States.

The cost implications of the IESO’s projections represent more bad news for Ontarians. The agency’s plan to greatly expand the role of gas-fired generation arrives as North American natural gas prices are showing a dramatic rise from their recent historic lows. That can only translate into higher electricity costs for Ontario consumers. The strengthened federal carbon pricing regime proposed before last fall’s election, could push the cost of gas-fired generation even higher.

The overall situation highlights the need for Ontario to establish a meaningful planning process around its electricity system. That process needs to be linked to the development of a credible strategy to address climate change. Serious consideration needs to be given to the full range of alternatives available to the province to meet its future electricity needs, including the options for significant electrification of transportation, space heating and industry, where possible. Maximizing opportunities for energy efficiency needs to be in the forefront of these efforts, along with major expansions of the roles of renewable energy sources and energy storage technologies, distributed energy resources, and an enhanced relationship with Quebec.

Without these steps, Ontarians will be left with no option but the one outlined by the IESO – a vastly dirtier and more expensive electricity system, and no real pathway to meet the challenge of a changing climate.