Ontario Shouldn't Abandon its Shift to Renewable Energy
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Ontario Shouldn’t Abandon its Shift to Renewable Energy

Time to close the Pickering Power Plant?

Nuclear power

Toronto’s Portlands Energy Centre. Photo by [email protected] from Torontoist’s Flickr pool

Donald Trump wants to breathe new life into the dying coal industry. So does Canada’s deeply conservative Fraser Institute, which recently decreed that a little air pollution was nothing to get worked up about. Meanwhile, Ontario has now been enjoying the benefits of living without dirty coal power for three years and has seen a large drop in both smog days and power-sector greenhouse gas emissions.

But after taking the bold step of phasing out coal and introducing incentives for the development of clean renewable energy, it is increasingly looking like Ontario’s energy transition has stalled. The province recently cancelled the latest round of its Large Renewable Procurement effort—in which power developers bid to develop large wind and solar projects—and announced the end of its Feed-in Tariff program, which encouraged tens of thousands of Ontarians to install solar panels and really kickstarted the development of the province’s green energy industry.

So what has changed? To start with, the province is swimming in surplus power. When you keep three of the world’s largest nuclear stations operating in an era when electricity demand is dropping thanks to economic changes (less heavy industry), technological changes (super efficient LED lighting), and behavioural changes (people and companies embracing conservation to save money), you end up with a lot of power nobody needs. That’s because nuclear plants do not turn on or off with a flick of a switch—it can take days for reactors to be powered down or powered up.

This kind of “dumb” power flies in the face of our increasingly intelligent systems, where devices can be told to power down or adjust settings in seconds. But Ontario remains almost as deeply wedded to antiquated nuclear technology as Donald Trump is to 19th century coal.

Our power planners love nuclear energy, and the nuclear industry insists it is a low-cost source of power. Of course, they don’t add that publicly-owned Ontario Power Generation just applied for an 180 per cent increase in the price it is paid for the power generated by its nuclear plants, or that the aging Pickering Nuclear Station on Toronto’s doorstep has the highest operating costs of any nuclear station in North America, requiring a billion dollars annually to subsidize its operating deficit.

No other jurisdiction in the world outside of France relies as heavily on nuclear power as Ontario. It is an astonishing dependence at a time when costs for renewable sources like wind and solar continue to decline dramatically—but not one that Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government seems to be in any hurry to shake.

In fact, the government has given the green light to OPG’s application to continue to operate the 46-year-old Pickering station until at least 2024. Pickering is the fourth oldest nuclear station in North America. It is now surrounded by more than two million people, and it has a long history of serious incidents and breakdowns, including the closure of four reactors in the 1990s due to safety concerns (two were later restarted at a cost of billions of dollars, after which it was decided it made no economic sense to restart the other two).

No sane person would locate one of the world’s oldest and largest nuclear stations, with six reactors, in the middle of the country’s largest urban area today. But that hasn’t stopped the Wynne government from cheerleading for the continued operation of the outdated plant for another decade or more. The excuse: that we need Pickering’s power while we rebuild the aging reactors at the Darlington Nuclear Station, 20 kilometres to the east.

But here’s the thing: only half of the power Pickering produces is actually used in Ontario. The rest is exported to our American neighbours, at a large financial loss to us. Meanwhile, our neighbour to the east—Quebec—is sitting on a growing surplus of low-cost water power that could not only replace Pickering’s power right now, it could help us avoid wasting billions on rebuilding Darlington as well.  

No nuclear project in Ontario’s history has ever been completed on time or on budget, though. Despite all the happy talk coming from the government and the nuclear industry, it will be no different this time. Opening up and replacing the guts of a 30-year-old reactor is a massively complex and risky task full of unknowns. And it always ends badly for electricity ratepayers.

Last October, Ontario signed a modest deal with Quebec to import enough water power each year to keep the lights on in a small city—think London or North Bay. Oddly, the Wynne government has gone to great lengths to avoid talking about what it is paying for this power. However, thanks to Quebec media, we know it is five cents per kilowatt-hour. Five cents per kilowatt-hour is less than a third of what OPG is seeking to get for its nuclear output by 2026.

With our current transmission line connections with Quebec, we could already be importing enough power to entirely replace the power coming from Pickering that we actually use in Ontario. If we invested roughly $2 billion in additional transmission ties, we could also replace much of the power from Darlington. Two billion dollars sounds like a lot, until you consider that OPG is planning to spend $13 billion on Darlington—and that’s a highly optimistic estimate.

Quebec has more than enough export power available and can, in fact, dramatically increase its export supplies by improving both its low levels of energy efficiency and by tapping its huge wind power potential. As it is, Quebec has power available for export in every month of the year and virtually every hour of the day (99 per cent availability). Compare that to our nuclear stations: Darlington is out 17 per cent of the time, while Pickering is out 30 per cent of the time, requiring natural gas back up.  

Just as returning to dirty coal makes absolutely no sense, neither does clinging to outdated nuclear technology with its high risks and increasingly high costs. Instead of echoing Donald Trump’s nostalgia for the dirty and dangerous past, we need to embrace the future of high efficiency, low carbon, and renewable power. With a worldwide surge in renewable energy development, this is no time for Ontario to be left in the dust.

Angela Bischoff is the outreach director with the Clean Air Alliance