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Ontario's energy policy is blowing in the wind

The Windsor Star: Jim Collinson - May 7, 2010

Serious examination is needed before any wind generators proposed for parts of Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie are installed. Arguments against these "green" energy projects include: Disruption of contaminated silt; visual and audio "noise;" impact on birds (trauma, migration, staging); negative impact on property values; reduced esthetic experience on the water and along the shore, and dangers to recreational boaters. Extrapolating these factors impacts tourism -- a key economic generator.

How has energy generation got to this point without any apparent evidence of the comprehensive examination of options and calculation of future implications?

The problem is Ontario's current energy policy, apparently developed to appear to be green in an effort to curry the favour of environmental interest groups -- but without carefully thinking it through. Ontario may be congratulated for the attempt to improve the environment, but not for the consequences of inadequate policy.

Two examples illustrate this:

1. Wind energy is expensive and unreliable. Whatever output results from wind generation needs to be matched by an equal amount of energy from another source. Because wind velocities are sufficient to produce energy about 25 to 35 per cent of the time, the rest of the time there must be a capability somewhere else to fill the gap. Consequently, double the capacity of the wind farm is needed to ensure reliable, consistent availability (coal or gas-fired generators, nuclear generators, imports, etc.) Wind generation itself is expensive, but with the redundancy needed, it is at least three times more expensive than other options. Why not just stick with the cost of the alternate source and save the cost of the wind farm?

2. A $10,000 subsidy is proposed to encourage Ontario drivers to buy electric cars. The objective is to reduce greenhouse gases, giving Ontario a "cleaner" transportation sector. Although it is true that at least local summer smog conditions in downtown Toronto could be improved if a lot of people switched to electric cars, no one seems to have taken into account how or where this electricity will be generated.

Will it come from new coal or gas-fired plants with consequent CO2 emissions? Might hybrid vehicles be a better alternative, especially if production from the oilsands were cleaner?

If charging were done overnight during lower power draw, advantage could be taken of slack demand. But inherent in this assumption is the implication that electric cars can only be charged during certain hours, limiting their use to daytime travel within a confined travel area due to their limited range. Perhaps the money would be better spent on public transit.

This illustrates the forward and backward linkages that need to be taken into account in developing energy policy.

Solar energy, for example, is not particularly efficient in our latitude. More important, current panel technology uses considerable germanium and gallium, to the extent that the known reserves of these elements could be quickly depleted. Both solar and wind energy have their place, but need to be considered in context with use, cost and reliability.: For example, small operations (e.g. cottage situations) where energy can be stored in batteries.

Use of water power for electricity generation is highly efficient, but carries with it environmental impacts that vary depending on location and resources flooded above the dam.

Nuclear, either smaller plants or more conventional large ones, holds the most promising potential, yet it somehow gets put on the back burner. It is safe, price competitive with coal, gas and hydro, and much cleaner operating than the first two. Greenhouse gas emissions are negligible and new generation technology plants can use 25 per cent or more of the fuel in "spent fuel rods" currently in storage after only about two per cent of their capacity has been used by existing plants.

A review of the Ontario energy policy appears warranted before more new investment takes place on questionable "green" projects. Ideally, a national policy is needed. Since energy can be transported and energy sources and options vary across the country, a good balance can be achieved for environmental, economic and security purposes. Here, constant generation of power is not critical.

Wind generation proposals in Lakes St. Clair and Erie deserve careful consideration. Turbines can significantly impact this world-renowned bird migration area (a court case of 1,600 ducks killed in a settling pond in Alberta could pale in comparison).

More important, Ontario's energy policy and current procedural exceptions to normal project approval need immediate attention -- preferably in a national context.

Jim Collinson is a policy and strategy management consultant on energy/economic/environmental complexity who lives in Amherstburg. E-mail: acrc@bell.net.