Executive action on climate change is possible: will it happen?

Kathleen Wynne was just sworn in as Ontario’s premier. She actually won the job on January 26, at the Ontario Liberal party leadership convention in Toronto. There was a Liberal leadership contest in the first place because Ms. Wynne’s predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, was essentially forced to call it when his and his party’s position in the Ontario legislature became untenable due to revelations about the cancellation of two gas-fired power plants, one of which occurred during the most recent provincial election. The issue has not gone away. The legislature will re-convene on February 19, at which point the gas plants will recapture centre stage. In the 16 days since Ms. Wynne won the Liberal leadership, gas-fired generators in Ontario have dumped an estimated 732,542 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main man-made greenhouse gas, into the air.

The new normal in power system planning: you wouldn’t see this in a nuclear host community. Opposition to gas plants is why Ontario has a new premier today. Similar opposition to wind turbines cost the Ontario Liberals their majority government in 2011; the lack of a majority meant the Liberals could not control the legislature, and was why the previous premier was forced to prorogue parliament and quit as Liberal leader.

The gas plant cancellations are the political manifestation of a critical underlying issue directly related to Ontario’s long-term energy future. That issue is land-use rights. The gas plants were sited in populated areas, and the nearby residents mobilized strenuously against them, on the basis of safety: gas is essentially methane, which is extremely flammable and explosive. It also produces a lot of pollution.

Why were the gas plants planned in the first place? Because Ontario is phasing out its fleet of coal-fired generating plants, which are heavy emitters of CO2. The public plan was to replace coal plants with wind turbines, but because wind is unreliable the less-public plan was to actually replace coal with gas. In reality, the replacement was by nuclear generators, which produce no air pollution.

To implement the plan, the government had to pay both wind generators and prospective operators of gas-fired plants huge amounts of money to build new installations. This is where land use came in, and it led to the Liberals losing their majority government in the 2011 election. There is not much space to build wind turbines in cities, therefore most of the new wind installations were in rural areas. Because wind is so inefficient, there must be many, many turbines to produce even small amounts of power. Therefore, many, many communities suddenly found themselves host to massive wind farms. The locals were not allowed to oppose this; they voiced their displeasure by kicking out Liberal incumbents. Hence the loss of majority.

And, as noted above, the locals in areas planned for new gas plants did not like that either. The Liberals, to keep those seats, had to cancel two plants that were being especially strongly opposed. Hence McGuinty’s prorogation of parliament in mid-October 2012.

Ontario needs power. We cannot function without it. And these issues, especially issues relating to delivering bulk power to the Toronto area, are not going away.

There is another option, one that will not involve the same kind of community opposition that forced the previous premier out of office. Nor does it involve any CO2 emissions. That is to look at expanding the nuclear capacity at either or both of the Bruce and Darlington stations.

As mentioned, Ontario gas-fired plants dumped nearly three-quarters of a million metric tons of CO2 into our atmosphere in the 16 days since Kathleen Wynne won the Liberal leadership. That is roughly 45,000 tons per day. At that daily rate, by the time the provincial legislature is back in session, the same gas-fired fleet will have dumped a further 320,000 tons—bringing the total in the short period since January 26 to over a million.

A million metric tons, in not even 24 days. If the operators of those gas plants had to pay a $30 per ton tax on CO2, then those million tons would cost $30 million.

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10 years ago

Your slash in the closing should be the other way

Good article once again Steve. It really is simple. Facing facts means recognizing what needs to be done. It is possible that people will soon see nuclear energy as the choice of the status quo. Documentaries like Pandora’s Promise which will be released this summer hopefully will help make that a reality. A lot of people are changing their mind about what forms of energy to support. Those who oppose nuclear say nuclear plants should not be built close to populated centres. The truth is that gas plants are far more likely to kill people and destroy property.

It also worth mentioning that acquiring methane gas is far more destructive per unit of energy than acquiring nuclear fuel. The nature of the damage caused by CO2 has immediate and long term effects but even worse than CO2 being released into the atmosphere is the release of methane that occurs in acquiring natural gas fracking. So the reasons are many for choosing to support nuclear energy.