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Ontario’s renewable energy announcement is welcome, but doesn’t the province’s change high-cost and high-emissions approach to electricity.

January 2024

Version published in the Toronto Star, January 22, 2024

Last month the Ford government announced its intention to procure 2000MW of new electricity supplies from renewable sources, including wind, solar and hydro by 2030, with a potential for another 3000MW by 2034.

The government’s move is certainly a welcome development, particularly given its previous refusal to consider additional renewable energy sources in its electricity plans, and its infamous 2018 decision to terminate 758 renewable energy projects across the province at a cost of at least $231 million.

At the same time, it is important to recall that the government’s decision does nothing to change its overall trajectory on electricity and energy. The province remains committed, as laid out in its July 2023 energy plan, to a major expansion of the role of nuclear energy including 4800 MW of new generating capacity at the Bruce site, and four 300MW new reactors at the Darlington site.

No cost estimates are available for the proposed nuclear projects. The bids submitted as part of the province’s last attempt at a new-build nuclear project would optimistically suggest costs in the range of $50 billion for the Bruce project alone. The costs of the four smaller reactors proposed for Darlington remain essentially unknown, given that none of the proposed type of reactor have ever been built or operated before anywhere in the world, but will run into the billions as well. A refurbishment of the four-reactor Pickering B station, previous assessed as uneconomic, is also under consideration.

The province is also in the process of adding 1500MW of new natural gas-fired generation to the system. At the same time, the role of existing natural gas fired plants is growing rapidly to replace nuclear facilities that are being refurbished or retired. Emissions from gas-fired generation have more than doubled since 2017, and are projected (Table 48) to continue to increase dramatically.

None of these directions have been changed by the December renewable energy announcement. The province’s electricity system remains on the same high-carbon, high-risk and high-cost pathway of nuclear and natural gas-fired generation expansion that it was on before. It continues to lack any meaningful planning process around its electricity system – the process is instead governed by political directives. That means there is no need to explain or justify the costs and risks flowing from its nuclear and gas heavy plan, before any sort of meaningful public review process or regulatory body.

Nor is there any requirement to demonstrate consideration of different pathways to decarbonization, such as those might incorporate a stronger focus on energy efficiency and productivity, greater development of renewable energy, distributed energy resources, such as networked rooftop solar and building-level energy storage resources, and relationships with neighbouring jurisdictions.

The province has been happy to accept billions in federal funding for ‘green’ steel, electric vehicle and battery manufacturing, and nuclear projects. But it continues to lack any meaningful or effective strategy around climate change, particularly in key areas like transportation, space heating and land-use.

Instead, the growing role of natural gas in electricity generation has put it in a position of directly contradicting the directions laid out in the federal government’s proposed Clean Electricity Regulations, intended to move Canada towards a net zero electricity gird. A carbon-intensive highway expansion plan remains at the centre of the province’s transportation strategy.

Ontario needs a serious and substantive climate plan and an open, accountable and evidence-based approach to decision-making around energy. A rational planning process for electricity and decarbonization would prioritize the options with the lowest economic, environmental, technological and safety risks first. Higher-risk options, like new nuclear, would only be considered where it can be demonstrated that the lower-risk options have been fully optimized and developed in the planning process.

Unfortunately, the province continues to take the opposite path – pursuing the highest cost, highest risk and highest negative impact option – nuclear expansion – first, along with growth in greenhouse gas-intensive natural gas-fired generation. Everything else - efficiency, renewables, and distributed energy resources – remains at the margins. Last month’s announcement does nothing the change this basic reality.