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Cutting coal power did little to clear the air, says study

Fraser Institute report said phase out coal resulted in no change in southern Ontario air pollution
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Thunder Bay Generating Station.

Closing down Ontario’s coal-fired power plants had very little effect on reducing air pollution, says a new study by the Fraser Institute.

The national think-tank said it only fueled skyrocketing energy costs in the province and “should serve as a lesson to policymakers across the country.

"Ontario's example should serve as a warning to the federal government, which is making the same grandiose claims about the benefits of eliminating coal while seemingly ignoring the crisis of Ontario's soaring energy costs," said Ross McKitrick, professor of economics at the University of Guelph and co-author of Did the Coal Phase-out Reduce Ontario Air Pollution?

In looking for changes in air pollution in Hamilton, Toronto and Ottawa from 2005 to 2014, the study said the coal phase-out had no effect on nitrogen oxide levels, an important component of smog, and produced only a small reduction in fine particulates, a common measure of air pollution.

The reduction in fine particulates “was statistically insignificant.”

The Fraser Institute said these findings confirmed the provincial government’s internal forecasts before the coal phase-out and should be taken into account at the federal government moves to phase-out of coal-fired power generation across Canada by 2030.

The think-tank further argues that had the Ontario government finished its modernization of the coal-fired plants, instead of shutting them down, fine particulate reductions of the same size could have been achieved at a much lower cost.

The study said that in 2005, all electricity power generation -- including coal -- comprised just 0.7 per cent of fine particulate emissions in Ontario.

Residential wood-burning fireplaces contributed 20 times more fine particulate emissions than electrical power generation.

"Ontario closed its coal-fired plants with promises to greatly reduce air pollution and save billions in health costs, neither of which came true. Now the province has some of the most expensive electricity in North America," said Kenneth Green, senior director of natural resource studies at the Fraser Institute.

"Policymakers in Ottawa should note how Ontario's coal phase-out failed to achieve its stated goals as they promise to impose the same failed strategy nationally," McKitrick said.

Two former coal-burning generating stations in northwestern Ontario – Thunder Bay and Atikokan – were converted to burning wood biomass.

Both plants have come under criticism in recent years by the provincial auditor general for operational cost inefficiencies.