When new electricity meets old money
Why Ontario's plan to scrap coal-fired generation won't be a walk in the park
File this under cheap irony: Ontario’s ambitious plan to wean the province off cheap electricity derived from coal is, at least for now, being hamstrung by some of its wealthiest residents. In case you missed it, the provincial government this week shelved a $1.2-billion proposal to build a power plant in Oakville, a particularly well-heeled pocket of southern Ontario, west of Toronto.
Defending the decision, Energy Minister Brad Duguid said power from the 900-megawatt, natural gas-fired facility is no longer needed. Instead, he maintained the province’s future energy needs could be met by building new transmission lines and installing some 8,000 megawatts of new, clean electricity. “With transmission investments we can keep the lights on and still shut down all dirty coal-fired generation,” he said in a statement.
The party line here is curious. Ontario remains committed to phasing out coal-fired electricity by 2014. That means the province will need to find an additional 4,200 megawatts of electricity to replace the power generated by four existing thermal generation plants. A 900-megawatt plant fueled by comparatively clean-burning natural gas would seem a good start. But this is Oakville, a leafy suburb that has played host to the Canadian Open where the median family income tops $100,000.
Indeed, it is a particularly virulent form of NIMBYism that has led to this point. Consider the Citizens for Clean Air. The group has opposed the gas-fired plant from day one. It bills itself as a “broad coalition of concerned citizens committed to raising public awareness regarding the absence of healthy air to breathe” in the Oakville-Mississauga area. Supporters have held celebrity golf tournaments ($3,000-a-foursome, according to the Toronto Star) and enlisted the help of Erin Brockovich to oppose the development. The PR effort was directed by Jill Fairbrother, former director of communications for federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. Door-knocking campaigns were organized with military-like precision; a team of dedicated “street captains” 180-strong was dispatched to raise awareness; lawn signs went up; rallies and charity runs were held; YouTube videos were made. A cagey collection of naysayers this was not.
Elsewhere among the not-on-planet-earth set, residents in east Toronto have been railing against a proposed wind farm on the Scarborough Bluffs. Another gas-fired plant north of the city has been labeled a threat to arable farmland. Judging by Duguid’s defense, the government’s answer to its power predicament seems to lie in pandering to those with both the means and the wherewithal to voice their disagreements through sophisticated public relations campaigns. Transmission lines may be the way to go, but only insofar as consumers are willing to pay for them with higher rates and the power they carry comes from hydroelectric plants in Ontario’s hinterland.