Power supply problems continue

John Spears
Toronto Star
October 31, 2003

Are Ontario consumers ready to pay more for power?

If the August blackout taught Ontarians anything, it’s that the province’s electricity system isn’t as secure as they’d thought.

While a consumer revolt over rising electricity prices stampeded the former Tory government into freezing the energy component of the hydro bill, the blackout showed that having a secure supply is also vital.

A low price is useless if there’s no power in the system.

Perhaps that’s why the freshly minted Liberal government has broken its first promise by telling consumers it won’t keep the price frozen until 2006, as the party’s campaign platform had pledged.

The government is now facing up to the prospect of trying to build a power system that, first of all, has enough juice to keep everyone’s lights on.

At the moment, that’s not the case, and the math doesn’t look good for the future.

On a very hot or very cold day in Ontario, demand for power soars to about 25,000 megawatts – and up to 15 per cent, or close to 4,000 megawatts, has to be imported from our neighbours.

While imports aren’t necessarily evil, the blackout underscored the risk of overdependence.

But if the Liberals keep their promise to shut down every coal-fired generating station in the province by 2007, the supply could get even tighter.

Nanticoke and Lambton, the province’s two biggest coal plants, by themselves can churn out more than 20 per cent of the province’s power on a day of maximum consumption.

Replacing those plants won’t be easy.

The obvious answer: build more generating stations. But there are no simple ways of boosting generating capacity.

The Pickering A nuclear station, with about 2,000 megawatts of capacity, is supposed to be back in service at some point, but its future is uncertain due to mammoth cost overruns and delays.

The Liberals say there’s potential for nearly 4,800 megawatts of new gas-fired plants, but natural gas supplies are tight and natural gas plants may become increasingly expensive to operate.

A new transmission line that would carry 1.25 megawatts of power from Quebec is bogged down on the Quebec side of the border. There’s no certainty it will ever be built.

The province says there’s capacity to construct 6,000 megawatts of wind-powered generators in Ontario, but giant wind farms tend to attract opposition from local communities.

And because the wind blows fitfully, a windmill may deliver power less than 25 per cent of the time.

Conservation is another route to energy security, but the price freeze destroyed any financial incentive for householders and small businesses to cut back.

Lifting the freeze before its scheduled expiry in 2006 sends a better signal to consumers that they’ll have to pay for the privilege of being energy hogs.

The Liberal pledge to keep the freeze in place until 2006 is “one of the promises they never should have made in the first place,” said Tom Adams, executive director of Energy Probe.

“From a conservation and energy reliability point of view, the best thing to do is simply go back to the market price right away.”

Ending the freeze sends the right signal to potential private sector investors, says Julie Girvan, an independent consultant who often works for the Consumers Association of Canada.

“We need to stimulate in the power sector in Ontario,” she said.

“Removing the price freeze, or at least increasing the price, will hopefully do something to stimulate new power development.”

 

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