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Darlington reactor announcement invites questions about Ontario’s high-cost, high-risk, and high-emissions electricity path.

Published in the Toronto Star and Hamilton Spectator, November 5, 2022


Last week Ontario Power Generation (OPG) announced its intention to proceed with a proposed new 300MW nuclear power reactor at the provincially owned utility’s Darlington site.  The announcement raises far more questions than it answers, particularly about the future path for the province’s electricity system.

The BWRX-300 reactor at the centre of the initiative itself only exists as a design – what has been termed a “PowerPoint” reactor – of which no examples have actually been constructed, tested or operated. This makes reliable estimates of costs and performance virtually impossible. The fact that the only major investor in the project seems to be the federal Canada Infrastructure Bank should be a flashing red warning light about its technological and economic risks.

More widely, the announcement begs questions about how decisions around Ontario’s electricity system are being made. As it currently stands, 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.

OPG seems to be taking advantage of the resulting vacuum to make a back-door commitment to an expanded nuclear-based pathway, enlarging its own role in the process.  The ‘[theenergymix]life-extension’ for the aged Pickering facility east of Toronto announced last month can be seen through the same lens.

As it stands, Ontario is on track to see a 600 percent growth in its electricity-related emissions by the early 2040s relative to its 2017 low, as natural gas-fired power plants are ramped up to replace nuclear facilities facing retirement or being taken out of service for refurbishment, and new gas plants are built. With natural gas prices on the rise, those moves are almost certain to lock-in higher electricity costs for decades to come. Ontario taxpayers are already subsidizing electricity rates at a cost of nearly $7 billion/yr.

The Ford government’s unwillingness to consider different approaches to meeting the province’s electricity needs is particularly surprising given the range of alternatives available to it, even allowing for significant electrification of transportation, space heating and industry.

Assessments for the province’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) itself have identified substantial and achievable potential for improvements in energy efficiency to meet all of the province’s projected future growth in electricity demand and then some. Unfortunately, Ontario’s relatively successful energy efficiency strategy was scrapped by the Ford government in 2019. Some modest programs were reintroduced this fall.

Quebec has made repeated overtures around expanding its relationship with Ontario around hydro exports. Instead of responding, the Ford government has walked away from the existing power-sharing agreement between the two provinces.

Two recent new studies have highlighted a range of additional possibilities. The first, completed for the IESO, is focused on the potential contributions of what are broadly termed distributed energy resources (DERs) – things like rooftop solar systems, household and facility-level energy storage and even the use of parked electric vehicles as storage resources.

The study concludes that “there is ample cost-effective DER capacity to meet or exceed all incremental system needs under all scenarios” - potentially removing the need for new gas-fired generation and the Darlington new reactor project.

The David Suzuki Foundation, for its part, recently published a study looking at options for a net-zero electricity grid for Canada by 2035. In Ontario’s case, a net-zero grid that phases out both fossil fuel and nuclear generation by mid-century emerges as a viable and economic option. Such a pathway relies on significant growth in the role of low-impact renewables, particularly wind and solar, energy storage and interconnections with other provinces.

Unfortunately, these possibilities around energy efficiency, the relationship with Quebec, DERs, and an expanded role for renewables seem to continue to fall on deaf ears in the province.

The Ford government has a wide range of options before it. But so far, it has given little indication of a willingness to change course from its current high-cost, high-risk and high-emissions trajectory.