Ontario Goes Coal-Free in a Decade

A decade ago, the Canadian province of Ontario supplied one-quarter of its electricity from coal-fired power. In early January this year, the province announced that it would meet its goal of phasing out coal-fired generation a year early. By the end of 2013, coal-fired generation will be less than 1%, and 17 of the 19 units that existed in 2003 will be shut down; the remainder (backup units) will be eliminated by the end of 2014 (Table 1). The province’s Ministry of Energy calls the phaseout the “single largest greenhouse gas reduction measure being undertaken in North America.”

Rather than compromising the province’s power supply, decisions over the past decade regarding everything from supply to conservation to grid enhancements have resulted in an installed capacity that exceeds the province’s peak demand. According to numbers provided to POWER by the Ontario Power Authority (OPA), peak demand (July 13) in 2005 was 26,160 MW, while capacity stood at 30,662 MW. In 2012, peak demand dropped, to 24,636 (July 17), while capacity increased to 35,736 MW, giving the province an enviable surplus. That “healthy and stable supply is in contrast to 2003, when Ontario paid $900 million importing power to meet the electricity demand of residents and businesses,” said OPA spokesperson Tim Butters. (All currency is in Canadian dollars unless the reference is to U.S. prices. U.S. and Canadian dollars were near parity in early 2013.)

Why Eliminate Coal?

Ontario’s population of 13,505,900 (as of July 2012) is 38.7% of Canada’s total. It is close in resident size to the state of Illinois, with which it shares a heavy reliance on nuclear power. Given that it is home to major population and business centers, Ontario cannot afford to be capricious when it comes to electricity supply availability and reliability decisions. So what prompted the major supply shift? Public pressure, legislative action, and fuel availability all played a role.

As in other regions and countries, public pressure for cleaner, renewable energy sources started the ball rolling. The Ontario Clean Air Alliance (OCAA) coalition, established in 1997, was the primary public interest group to bring pressure on politicians and industry to make a shift to cleaner energy. The alliance consists of “approximately 90 organizations (health and environmental organizations, faith communities, municipalities, utilities, unions and corporations) that represent over six million Ontarians.”

Pressure from the OCAA is seen as having been instrumental in nudging politicians to consider a coal-free diet. (It should be noted that although the group’s name focuses on clean air, the OCAA also calls for a phaseout of nuclear power and emphasizes the opportunities for efficiency, renewables, importing hydropower from Quebec, and small-scale gas-fueled combined heat and power projects.)

Then, in August 2003, the eastern North American blackout got everyone paying attention to the grid. Ontario’s response included creating an Electricity Conservation and Supply Task Force (ECSTF), which recommended developing a long-term plan for generation and conservation. That fall, the provincial government followed ECSTF recommendations and enacted the Ontario Electricity Restructuring Act, which, in part, created the Ontario Power Authority, whose responsibilities include addressing power system planning issues.

Divesting the province of coal was seen as a way to meet multiple goals: fight climate change by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, reduce smog and mercury and other emissions to protect human health, and develop more renewable/free-fuel generation sources. The relative emphasis given to each of these rationales depended on which group was making the pitch.

Fuel prices and availability played a less-critical role. Most of the coal for power generation had been imported from the U.S., whereas gas for power generation comes from western Canada.

To read the full article on POWERmag, click here.

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