Here is a column in today’s National Post, “Stop playing with Ontario’s electricity”, addressing the electoral shuffle around the Mississauga natural gas fired power plant.
A slightly longer version of the column which looks more broadly at the issues not being debated in the election campaign follows.
Perils of Politicized Power
The Ontario Liberals announced Sunday that if elected, they will move a locally controversial natural gas-fired power generating station under construction in south-east Mississauga, where the Liberal incumbent Charles Sousa is facing a strong challenge from the PC candidate Geoff Janoscik.
The announcement highlights the hazards of vesting our politicians with control over our electricity supply.
The announcement of the Mississauga generator cancellation echos the Liberal government’s decision almost exactly one year ago, cancelling a much larger gas-fired generator once planned for Oakville. The Oakville gas plant was also locally controversial, with a Liberal MPP actively opposing his government’s initial approach.
The Mississauga generator was part of the plan to fill the gap left in the west GTA’s power supply by the Oakville generating plant’s cancellation.
Underscoring the political nature of the announcement, the Liberal statement moving the Mississauga generator also claims, “The Hudak PCs have committed to keeping dirty coal-fired pollution burning in Ontario.” The PC platform, slavishly repeated by Hudak throughout the campaign, promises “to complete the closure of coal powered plants by 2014.”
Although long on politics, the Liberal statements so far are silent on the costs of the cancellation, the measures that will be required to serve the needs that the power plant would have met, or the timing of its replacement. These gaps are telling.
With concrete already poured for the Mississauga generator, the financial implications for the developer of cancellation will be large relative to the overall expected cost of the facility.
Smelling of electoral panic, Sousa’s prepared statement claims “Ontario Liberals will work with the developer to find a new location for the plant. It will not be in Etobicoke or Mississauga.”
The Liberal power station electoral shuffle brought yet more consensus to the debate over our electricity future in this campaign. The Ontario PC’s Janoscik and the local NDP candidate, Anju Sikka, soon issued statements concurring with the new Liberal cancellation.
Key issues about our electricity future include whether Ontario should maintain those coal units fitted with modern scrubbers or whether we benefit by shifting massive amounts of costs from ratepayers onto the provincial deficit. But don’t look to this campaign to address those issues. Like the gas plant cancellation, the parties are in full or substantial agreement.
Where there are apparent differences, the debate has not fleshed out how substantive the differences really are. The provincial PCs have endorsed voluntary siting of generating plants which the Liberals in the main oppose, except in targeted ridings. However, the PC’s have not addressed the question of whether their support for voluntary siting extends to the transmission lines that would be required if generating plants are built far from where power is needed by consumers. Nor have the PCs explained how they would make trade-offs if a locally opposed plant was needed for reliability purposes.
The political flap over the south Mississauga generator overlooks the extreme vulnerability of Toronto to a prolonged blackout. This weakness is due to transmission deficiencies into Toronto, the region of heaviest power usage in the province. The absence of a substantial amount of local generation — a problem exacerbated by the closure of the Lakeview coal fired power station in south Mississauga — worsens the vulnerability.
Where New York City is capable of meeting 80% of its needs from local generation, Toronto can meet less than 10%.
For decades, transmission experts have recognized that the transmission configuration now serving Toronto is the vulnerable. It is certainly the weakest of any major financial centre in North America and probably the weakest any such centre in the OECD.
The south Mississauga gas generator was intended to provide relief for the overstretched Manby transformer station, owned by the Crown utility Hydro One. About 15 months ago, a routine equipment failure at Manby caused one of the longest and most widespread blackouts for a large urban centre in North America since the August 2003 Northeast Blackout.
The 2010 Manby blackout was Ontario’s first large green blackout. The urgently needed alternative transmission route into Toronto that would have reduced or eliminated the disruption caused by the Manby equipment failure has been long and effectively opposed by environmental activists.
Voters should demand more information on the costs of the cancellation but with a political consensus formed that the Mississauga generator must go, we cannot expect any debate on the wider public interest issues associated with the cancellation of the Mississauga generator, particularly the reliability and transmission implications. Without that debate, we will miss another chance to consider the role politics should play in controlling our electricity future.