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Pain of high power bills was “worth it”

Switch to green energy was necessary to improve air quality, address health risks, says Ontario environmental commissioner
Atikokan GS silo 2
Construction of the wood pellet silos at the Atikokan Generating Station in 2013. (Ontario Power Generation photo)

Ontarians may feel they’ve been hosed with high power bills but the province’s environmental commissioner said the switch from a fossil fuel-powered grid to a more clean-and-green network was worth the cost and the pain.

In an April 10 news release, Dianne Saxe gave the government credit for cleaning up Ontario’s electricity system and air by ending coal-fired power.

By replacing coal with low-carbon electricity sources such as hydro, solar, wind and nuclear power, Saxe said the system was 96 per cent emission-free in 2017.

She said the “cost to clean up the system led to higher electricity bills, but overall, it was worth it.”

“Electricity was cheap, but it came at a very high cost to our environment and health,” said Saxe.

Back in 2005, Saxe said the province’s power infrastructure was straining to meet peak demand but it was also a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and smog.

“Those with asthma and other respiratory ailments struggled with bad air quality. There is no doubt that our electricity system was a major contributor to poor air quality and higher health costs.”

In Saxe’s latest report, Making Connections: Straight Talk about Electricity in Ontario, she criticized the province’s Long-Term Energy Plan for ignoring its own climate law requiring Ontario to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels like gasoline, natural gas, and oil by 2030.

She contends there’s nothing written or happening to make that happen. The Long-Term Energy Plan, prepared by the Ministry of Energy, is a guidepost document detailing Ontario’s future energy needs and identifies where the investment needs to go.

“The climate law means that Ontarians must be prepared to reduce emissions from fossil fuel use by 40 to 50 per cent in the next 13 years,” said Saxe in a statement.

“This means more conservation, and converting some fossil fuel uses – including some gas-fuelled cars and trucks, and some heating of our homes and businesses – to electricity instead.”

Ontario’s electricity system produces very few emissions since coal-fired power plants were closed.

Saxe said the current plan predicts the demand for electricity will remain stable but it doesn’t plan for the low-carbon transition needed. She said the entire energy system must become more efficient and Ontario must do more to conserve.

In 2015, the cost to convert two former coal-fired plants in northwestern Ontario into wood pellet-burning power plants was slammed by the provincial auditor general in a report.

The government spent $170 million to convert the 205-megawatt Atikokan Generating Station from coal to pellets before that plant came online in 2014.

The Thunder Bay Generating Station had one of its two 153-megawatt units converted for less than $5 million when it became operational in 2015.

Both generating stations were positioned to occasionally run as a peaking plant to supplement what was needed on the provincial power grid.

But in the final tally, the auditor general said it cost $1,600 per megawatt to generate power at Thunder Bay (25 times more expensive than any other biomass plant) and $528 per megawatt hour at Atikokan (eight times higher).