The unintended consequences of green energy: or, why Oakville is in Napanee

As of around mid-August 2018, a former chief of staff of a former Ontario premier had spent four months in jail for his part in a fiasco known as the Gas Plant Scandal. This fiasco involved the politically motivated cancellation, apropos of the 2011 provincial general election, of two gas-fired power plants that had been planned for Oakville and Mississauga (both in Ontario near Toronto).

Local opposition to the plants had forced the ruling Liberal government to cancel them,1 prompting threats of legal action by the plant owners. Instead of utilizing its salaried legal talent to deal with a fairly straightforward legal challenge by fighting to limit the financial damage to whatever amount would have covered the complainants’ legitimate sunk costs, the government cried Uncle and chickened out of the fight it had started—agreeing to neither argue too closely the meaning of “legitimate” as put by the complainants nor to scrap the plants altogether.2

The cost of this capitulation to provincial taxpayers and ratepayers was ultimately more than a billion dollars, a fact the government would have greatly preferred we never learned. Unfortunately for the government, we did learn it. That was only because, while the gas plant cancellations had served their purpose in that they protected incumbent Oakville and Mississauga Liberals from defeat in the 2011 election, other electricity policy moves ensured Liberal defeat in ridings elsewhere—especially ones into which the Green Energy Act of 2009 had enabled forcing large numbers of wind turbines.

Ironically, it was the Liberals’ certainty of defeat in the wind ridings that led them to such desperate measures to hang onto Oakville and Mississauga.

The upshot was that the Liberals won only a bare minority government in 2011. They thereby lost control of the parliamentary committees that have the power to investigate matters like these. Opposition strength on one of these committees was such that the opposition was able to force the government to turn over documents concerning the cancellations. Those documents contained some very interesting, and for the government extremely embarrassing, details about the cancellations. When it came to actually handing over the documents the government stonewalled, Watergate style, and the whole thing became a major scandal that cost then-premier Dalton McGuinty his job and legacy.

It reverberates even today. As CTV reported on April 11, McGuinty’s former top aide David Livingston was sentenced to four months of jail time for his role in destroying emails that could have been incriminating.

The entire affair can be traced directly to green energy (specifically the GEA).

It is an inconvenient and dirty fact of green energy—i.e., wind and solar—that it cannot support a grid on its own. For wind and solar to survive in a grid, there must be massive power from the very fossil fuels that wind and solar are intended to replace. The Ontario Auditor General, in his reports on the gas plant scandal3, noted this fact4.

The OAG asserted that combined cycle gas is required to “fill in the gaps” of intermittent renewable sources like wind and solar5. This is an interesting assertion, and important to clarify. While proponents of combined cycle gas have certainly succeeded in portraying it as a “clean” alternative to coal, this is a simplistic and self-serving comparison. Megawatt for megawatt, when a plant is running at or close to capacity, combined cycle gas indeed is cleaner than coal, by about fifty percent. But combined cycle gas is actually not suited to “filling in the gaps” of wind and solar. If you must fill in these gaps and you must do it with natural gas, the best cycle is simple cycle gas turbine or a reciprocating (piston) engine. Simple cycle turbine and reciprocating engines can start from cold and put power into a grid within minutes. For combined cycle gas to achieve its advertised CO2 per kilowatt hour, all units including the steam turbine must be at or near full power. The steam unit cannot be at or near full power unless the gas turbines have been at that level for some time—it is their waste heat that makes the steam in the first place.

Nonetheless, relocating Oakville to Napanee, literally next door to the massive Lennox plant, underlines the foobar character of the gas plant fiasco. Of the two plants, Lennox is the only one that is truly flexible, the only one actually capable of maneuvering around fickle, erratic wind—when it does run, which it does very rarely, it frequently puts single-digit megawatts into the grid; see the figure below. This from a plant whose smallest unit is 500 MW. The CCGT next door, when it comes online, will not be able to deliver this kind of flexibility without dumping Lennox-sized amounts of CO2 (assuming Lennox is running on gas; it also runs on Bunker C fuel oil)—assuming its gas turbines can produce power on their own, without the steam unit. It therefore cannot serve the purpose for which it was originally planned—unless that purpose was to provide baseload power. And why would Ontario have needed in 2008 900 MW of fossil baseload when it had literally thousands of megawatts of laid up nuclear capacity (the Bruce A restart was underway at that point, and units 1 and 2, totalling over 1500 MW, would re-enter service in 2012). If the goal was clean air, then nuclear was or should have been the only option for baseload.

This brings me to why the gas plant scandal was a direct if unintended consequence of green energy. Ontario tried an energiewende before even the Germans did. When they came to power in 2003, the Liberals’ stated intent was to replace coal with green energy. The real intent, after the overzealous staffers were apprised of the realities of running an electricity grid, was to replace it with gas, with renewable energy as the physical propaganda greenwashing the whole thing. But as I have described in earlier articles, that plan became unworkable when the continental price of natural gas started to show extreme volatility.

Eager to stick to their coal phaseout promise, the Liberals wisely went with the only real alternative to coal: nuclear. Unlike policymakers in Germany, they were not handicapped by having to pander to a dedicated and well organized anti-nuclear lobby: Ontario anti-nukes, following the tradition of most Canadian liberal-progressives, are too timid and parochial to formulate doctrine that even hints at independence and originality, so they import it wholesale from their betters in America, a country they despise as the arch-vanguard of cultural imperialism. American anti-nukes are motivated more by money than German. As a result, the North American koolaid isn’t as strong as the German.

Hence the Liberals, for what they likely viewed as a small price, were able to replace coal with nuclear without alienating anybody in their base who wasn’t a true-blue anti-nuke fanatic. That price was a cap on nuclear and massive support for green energy. The government was quick to foist the payment of the price of green energy entirely onto Ontario ratepayers, which may have given them (the Liberals) the hugely mistaken impression that green energy is cheap.

The Liberals, eventually, learned the true size of the green energy price tag. On June 7 this year they were electorally annihilated, losing official party status and reduced to a legislative rump that now competes for media attention with the hapless comedy act that is the Green Party.

  1. Both plants would have been located in electoral districts the Liberals held at the time.
  2. Both plants were slated to replace existing publicly owned fossil plants, both steam cycle. These steam plants were Lennox GS and Lambton GS. Both are (Lennox) or were (Lambton) rated at 2,000 MW and owned/operated by Ontario Power Generation, a generation successor of the former Ontario Hydro. Lennox is still in operation (though it rarely puts power into the grid), and Lambton was one of the infamous Ontario coal plants phased out by the Liberals.
  3. Dalton McGuinty’s successor Kathleen Wynne herself asked the OAG to report on the affair.
  4. See the OAG’s reports on the Oakville and Mississauga cancellations.
  5. Page 5 (p.7 of the PDF).
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5 years ago

Fascinating tale.  I hope to have time to read all the supporting documents.