Nuclear energy in Ontario: legislative game theory in interesting times

The McGuinty Liberals squeaked into a minority government on October 6, mostly by hanging on to their electoral seats in urban areas—especially in and around Toronto. It was clear that their strategy in the campaign was to focus on these seats. The premier talked up his Green Energy Act incessantly, and the Green Energy Act—with its requirement that provincial rate-payers provide generous financial support for wind and solar power—is popular among the motivated “base” voters in those areas.

The GEA is decidedly not popular, though, in a number of rural areas, especially those with significant numbers of industrial wind turbines. Did the premier know that touting the Act would cost him seven rural seats, including three held by ministers in his cabinet? If he did, he obviously had done his arithmetic and decided the urban-rural tradeoff was worth it.

In terms of the bottom line, winning the election, this was probably a smart choice on his part. Had he not talked up a major point of cleavage between him and his rivals, he might not have given his base voters the critical motivation to get out and vote on October 6. Voter turnout across the province was the lowest since 1867, and it was particularly low in some of the urban areas that the Liberals won. Without that cleavage point, urban Liberal candidates who barely won against close NDP and PC challenges—for example, Laura Albanese in York South-Weston and Bob Chiarelli in Ottawa West-Nepean—might have come up short.

The big question is, what happens now. The GEA was a flawed work in progress on October 6. The Liberals knew the GEA’s wind farm prescriptions were trouble back in February, when they put a moratorium on offshore wind turbines after strong local opposition to offshore wind projects. Those suspicions were confirmed with the loss of seven rural seats on October 6.

And the Liberals know that the other side of the GEA coin, natural gas-fired generation, faces equally formidable opposition. They have seen three big gas-fired plants—in Woodbridge, Oakville, and Mississauga—die from determined and well-organized local efforts.

Does this mean the Liberals will continue their drive to put wind farms into areas that clearly don’t want them? I doubt it, but we’ll see. The Liberals have to now cooperate with the PCs and NDP on major policy initiatives. The PCs won’t support wind farms. The NDP may, but they have other electricity priorities, such as re-regulation, that might be more important to them. In any case, the Liberals know they owe the loss of their majority to their support for wind farms.

On the other hand, just to make things interesting, they know they owe their minority victory to them.

One thing is crystal clear. Local opposition has proved to be a major force in the development of electricity policy in Ontario. The Liberals might be already so tired of facing local opposition that they would look with great interest at communities where power plants actually have widespread support. Imagine that, a community that says YES in my backyard.

There is one such community. It is just east of Toronto, in Clarington. Clarington is home to the Darlington nuclear station, a huge provider both of clean cheap electricity and high paying local jobs. Darlington, the Liberals agree, needs a couple of new reactors. Building two new reactors would be the biggest capital infrastructure project in North America, and the biggest job creation project as well.

And it would also be the biggest clean energy project on the continent.

How could such a project be handled in the new minority legislature? It is doable. Both the Liberals and PCs are on record as supporting it.

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12 years ago

Jatin Nathwani, a professor and Ontario Research Chair in Public Policy for Sustainable Energy Management at the University of Waterloo, has an interesting article in the Globe and Mail, where he suggests Ontario’s energy policy needs a reset:

12 years ago

I would caution saying Nuclear power is “clean & cheap”. It may be clean in the sense no emissions are shot out of as smoke stack but it is far from clean. I think Ontario is heading down a dark road and Nuclear Power has the Government and people like you Steve, in it’s pocket. If they are so safe, cheap and reliable why are Germany, Belgium, France and Japan on a plan to close their Nuclear Plants? A lot of unbiased experts have said nothing that dangerous should ever be built above ground. The Nuclear backers in Ontario promised Bruce Nuclear would last 40 years…20 years later it is failing and needing upgrading while Niagara Hydro Plants have been running strong for 100 years. It is not cheap when you must constantly upgrade and pay for nuclear experiments. And what about the $20 Billion dollars in radioactive waste that sits in storage that nobody knows what to do with? I think you are a smart guy but something seems fishy about the way you blow the horn on nuke power and shrug off that there are huge downfalls with it and results of these downfalls can be seen all over the world. I am starting to think maybe all the money flowing through from electricity costs is just being used to keep people in the drak and make a small few very rich.

Steve Aplin
12 years ago
Reply to  Chad

Chad, thanks for taking the time to comment. Check your facts about France and Belgium. France especially is heavily nuclearized, about eighty percent of France’s power comes out of its 59 nuclear reactors.

As for Germany, that is pure pandering to a misinformed public. My prediction is that Germany will make a 4rth U-turn on nuclear energy when they realize their coal and gas usage will skyrocket if they really do phase out the 17 plants. They used to lecture the world about carbon emissions.

Yes, nuclear plants like Bruce need refurbishing. That applies to all major capital equipment. Even with refurbishment, Bruce Power output costs half what we pay for wind. And produces flat out, at or near capacity, for hundreds of days at a time.

Your point about the cost of “waste” is also incorrect. We know perfectly well what to do with it — sequester it behind concrete. It has never killed or harmed anybody, and it never will. Don’t forget that thousands of people spend their careers at nuclear plants, in relatively close proximity to this stuff. None has been harmed by it.

12 years ago

Thanks Steve, I appreciate the reply. There are so many different sides to the stories. But plants that have caught fire or been harmed during natural disasters do obviously harm people. I know in Canada we are pretty safe from that type of destructive weather but it still is cause for concern. How much do you sequester behind cement walls? and where? I would like to know more about all of this, reason for me reading your blog, but it seems you get different information everywhere you turn. I am on board with the wind power, or lack of, you talk about. Why is wind so costly? And also, are we tapped out of hydroelectricity? it seems to me to be the cleanest, chepaest form of power.

Steve Aplin
12 years ago
Reply to  Chad

Chad, you say

… plants that have caught fire or been harmed during natural disasters do obviously harm people.

You are bang on. The Chiba oil refinery east of Tokyo exploded when the March 11 quake hit, and burned for several weeks. How many casualties resulted from this? If I could read Japanese I might find out, but no western media bothered to mention it. They were too busy listening to anti-nuclear crank-cases talk about Fukushima. And, after 223 days of hype and hysteria, how many people have died because of radiation from Fukushima? Zero.

The same goes for the recent 5.9 magnitude quake that hit the Washington DC area. Lots of focus on nuclear plants, and no incidents whatsoever at nuclear plants. Lots of building/bridge/highway damage though.

Japan will replace nuclear plants with natural gas-fired ones, thereby increasing dependence on LNG. What happens if an LNG terminal is hit by an earthquake? More people will die in that inferno than will die from Fukushima.

Wind is costly because of the materials required to build the turbines, and the equipment required to hook them to the grid. When they’re up and running, they produce power at such a slow rate that it takes years just to pay off the capital. Hence the 13.5 cent FIT rate — it’s the only way turbine owners can make money.

We’re pretty much tapped out of the cheap available hydro. There’s the Albany River up north, but that’ll take a lot of effort and dollars.

12 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

Thanks Steve. I appreciate all the information.