Ontario switches gears, plans to increase renewable energy production by 2035; transition still too slow
When the last coal plant in the province shut down its smokestacks a decade ago, Ontario was hailed as a clean energy player. With one of the cleanest energy grids in the country, the province became an example for other provinces and even other countries. At its peak in 2021, 94 percent of its electricity grid was supplied by renewable or nuclear energy including wind, solar and hydro. By 2023, that number had dropped to 89 percent.
When Premier Doug Ford and his PC majority government took power in 2018, he scrapped 750 renewable energy contracts signed by the previous Liberal government. At the time, the Province said the additional capacity was not needed and it would just drive up energy rates. A year following the cancellation, the Premier exclaimed he was “proud” of his decision—analysis showed the government spent over $230 million to cancel the contracts.
With increasing pressure to electrify everything from cars and buses to home heating, Ontario will need to continue providing capacity to meet the demand, which is also facing pressure from rapid population growth expected to continue for the next two decades, at least. During the 2023 summer heatwave, demand for electricity across Ontario peaked at over 23,000 megawatts, while 24,283 were available for supply; pushing past the grid’s capacity can lead to dangerous consequences.
The coal-fired Lakeview power plant was a heavy polluter for decades before it was demolished 17 years ago under the Dalton McGuinty Liberal government's commitment to green Ontario's electricity grid.
The Powering Ontario’s Growth Plan estimates that by 2050, the province will need to increase capacity from the current 42,000 megawatts, to 88,000 megawatts. The Independent Electricity Systems Operator (IESO), the body that manages the province’s power supply, estimates that electricity demand will continue to increase approximately 2 percent per year. For the past 5 years, Premier Ford has attempted to increase capacity, to avoid disruptions and blackouts, by signing contracts for new gas plants and expansions of existing ones, resulting in the doubling of gas production for electricity supply.
Most recently, in September, the PC government announced an investment to increase gas procurement to produce an additional 1,500 megawatts. Emissions from the expansion of natural gas across the province are expected to increase 400 percent compared to 2017 levels by 2030, and almost 800 percent by 2050, sending Ontario in the opposite direction from the reductions targets both the provincial and federal government have committed to. It’s just one of the many contradictions detailed by Ontario’s Auditor General since the accountability office first examined emissions policy under the PCs.
Achieving their already weak emissions target of a 30 percent reduction below 2005 levels by 2030 (which is currently being challenged in a court case) is further out of reach because of Ford’s commitment to expanding gas for electricity production, instead of clean alternative sources.
But that might finally be changing, in the face of mounting pressure and an election in the not too distant horizon.
As 2023 was coming to a close, the government appeared to switch gears, ending a five-year freeze of new renewable energy contracts. The IESO is set to procure 2,000 megawatts of electricity from non emitting sources, including wind, solar and hydro. It is also looking to update existing facilities and contracts to procure an additional 3,000 megawatts over the next decade. For context, 4,000 megawatts of renewable energy procurement is comparable to all of the wind energy produced in Ontario today.
“We have a growing population, a growing economy and a trend towards electrification of transportation with electric vehicles and other applications, partly in response to climate change,” Bryan Purcell, vice president of policy and programs at The Atmospheric Fund (TAF), told The Pointer. “And so [the government] realizes that we need more energy and that renewable energy is really among the most cost effective resources that we can bring onto our system. It can be brought on relatively quickly compared to some other electricity generating options. And it's clean and consistent with climate goals.”
Cities like Mississauga are working to green their transit fleets, placing more demand on the electricity grid.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
While the news is welcoming for environmental groups who have pleaded for years for the government to ditch natural gas and move to cleaner, greener alternatives, the procurement is still far from what is needed to get Ontario on par with national and international commitments.
Jack Gibbons, chair of Ontario’s Clean Air Alliance, said the provincial government needs to speed up the addition of alternative energy sources for electricity production, "to lower our bills, and create lots of good jobs in Ontario."
At the eleventh hour of COP28, held at the end of last year, nations, including Canada, signed onto an agreement that set the standard to triple renewable energy generating capacity by 2030. But even with a historic agreement, finally recognizing that fossil fuels must be phased out in order to avoid the 1.5-degree tipping point established in Paris in 2015, environmental organizations and some nations were disappointed that the agreement took no action to phase out oil and natural gas.
“We're finally naming the culprit behind climate change, which is fossil fuels, and we're acknowledging that they can't have a role, that we need to be transitioning away from them,” Tom Green, senior climate policy advisor at the David Suzuki Foundation, previously told The Pointer. “That is progress, and I think that's why some people are rightly celebrating. All the while, I think many climate scientists are lamenting that we're still not going at the pace we need to avoid dangerous climate change.”
While Ontario has argued in court that its emissions are insignificant and don’t matter on a global scale, that claim can be easily contested with a few simple facts. Globally, fossil fuel combustion accounts for approximately 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In Canada, Ontario accounts for approximately 22 percent of national emissions, second only to Alberta which accounts for 38 percent. Ontario’s current emissions reductions target is 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. To keep in line with the Paris Agreement temperature target, Ontario would need to achieve a 52 percent reduction compared to 2005 levels by 2030. If Ontario continues to prioritize gas production instead of looking at cleaner alternatives, not only will it continue to gain status as a dirty-energy generating province, it will put all of Canada’s emissions targets at risk.
So why are the PCs still choosing natural gas?
Premier Ford and Minister of Energy Todd Smith continue to make the claim that natural gas is one of the cheapest forms of energy generation and will be needed to avoid conservation measures.
“Without a limited amount of new natural gas in the near term the IESO would be reliant on emergency actions such as conservation appeals and rotating blackouts to stabilize the grid,” reads the IESO Resource Eligibility Interim Report.
(Clean Air Alliance)
But increasingly reports have shown that renewable energy sources, particularly wind and solar, are the cheapest forms of energy generation presently available. Wind and solar have been the cheapest forms of energy production since 2020, and according to Clean Energy Canada, wind power is set to be 40 percent cheaper than gas fired power in Alberta and Ontario by 2030. This is even without carbon pricing schemes which have been in place across the country since 2019, increasing the cost of oil and gas power generation.
An increasing number of municipalities across the province are tying Ontario’s hands behind its back, passing motions calling for an end to natural gas production. So far 35 municipalities, representing 60 percent of the population of Ontario, have made this call, which has resulted in halting expansions of existing gas plants in Halton Hills and Thorold, after Minister Smith stated no gas plant can be built without municipal approval.
“We want to see that number be as small as possible, obviously, because every new gas plant that becomes under contract is locking in carbon for decades to come,” Purcell said. He noted that the most recent announcement for procurement of natural gas is likely under the target of what could be produced which could lead to a second procurement. TAF is encouraging the government not to do a second procurement and to focus on additional renewable capacity instead.
Revisiting offshore wind power is a move that the Clean Air Alliance is calling for. In 2011, the Liberal government under then premier Dalton McGuinty imposed a moratorium on offshore wind power after growing political pressure for the need for greater research on the generation’s impacts on ecosystems and its sustainability.
But Ontario increasingly fell behind as a singular offshore wind project in Sweden, expanded into multiple projects across the European Union and making its way across the Atlantic into the United States. While Ontario continues to hold strong against offshore wind projects on the Great Lakes that have the capacity to produce 100 percent of the province’s energy needs for the unproven impacts on aquatic life, the United States is proceeding with projects on its side of the Great Lakes.
“We've seen dramatic expansion of renewables in Europe and China, and certain US markets, including red and blue states in the US. It's notable that actually some of the fastest growing renewable energy states in the US are Republican led states,” Purcell said, stating there are a myriad of examples of renewable energy procurement that Ontario can look to or piggyback on. “What stands out in my mind is that you need to have a consistent and predictable process that builds industry competence, and helps them establish an ongoing business in the province.”
An example is Qebec, which in 2023, released its action plan to 2035 which calls for the province to meet 100 percent of its future electricity needs through investment in energy efficiency and demand management, renewables and storage.
Ninety-four percent of Quebec’s electricity is supplied by hydro power.
(Richard Coté/Wikimedia Commons)
Quebec also provides a unique opportunity for Ontario when it comes to acquiring storage. Storage is necessary with a transition to renewables because wind and solar power cannot operate on demand 24/7. The government of Ontario is planning to procure 2,500 megawatts of storage from stationary storage options located in Ontario (ex. Large batteries). But a study from the Massachuttes Institute of Technology, and recognized by the IESO, determined that Ontario could borrow storage capacity from Quebec hydro reservoirs as a cheaper alternative. The system would work in a feedback loop where when Ontario’s wind power production is above average, surplus can be exported to Quebec so that Hydro Quebec can store more in its reservoirs. Alternatively, when Ontario’s wind production is below average, we can borrow electricity produced with the extra water in Hydro Quebec’s reservoirs. Ths looped system would create a 24/7 electricity supply for Ontario. The total storage capacity of Quebec’s reservoirs are over 1.5 times the amount of Ontario’s total electricity consumption in 2022.
Under the current procurement, Ontario is planning to expand renewable energy capacity by 5000 megawatts which will produce an additional 12.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year. This is only 25 percent of Ontario’s future electricity needs.
“So there's room to go further, faster,” Purcell said. “Renewables have the advantage of being able to come to market quickly. And I think that I think the province could be more ambitious in its renewable energy procurement.”
Shortly before Canada signed onto the COP28 agreement, it released a draft of its Clean Electricity Regulations (CER) that looked to transition the nation to a low carbon electricity grid. While the Clean Air Alliance identified some loopholes within the regulations that would allow for some continued gas expansion, it has the potential to impose stricter regulations on provinces like Ontario to procure more renewable energy.
“The federal government now must put its pledge into action. And the way they can do that is bringing in clean electricity regulations that will require the phase out of gas power by 2035. And to achieve compliance with that, then Ontario would have to triple its wind and solar,” Gibbons said.
That is exactly what the Clean Air Allinace is calling for: a commitment to triple wind and solar power by 2035 in order to help the entire nation transition to a low carbon grid.
Right now, he said, “we're not nearly ambitious in terms of our renewable targets.”
Clarification: A previous version of the article included information about the impact of provincial clean energy contracts nearing the end of their life-cycle that had not been verified.
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