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George Smitherman is keen on green

mcampbell@globeandmail.com: MURRAY CAMPBELL - September 25, 2008

George Smitherman has been travelling. In what he calls "the full curious George," Ontario's new Energy Minister spent the summer finding out how they handle the task of keeping the lights on in Spain, California, Denmark and Germany and he has returned with a bundle of new ideas.

He is convinced that Ontario's energy industry can be greener with more wind turbines and solar-generation plants and more ways for consumers to curb their demand for electricity. "I'm jazzed about this," he says.

There are two comments to make about this. The first is that energy executives should be very nervous, because a jazzed-up George Smitherman is an awesome thing. If they doubt that, they should check the scar tissue on health-industry leaders who dealt with him in his nearly five years in that portfolio.

The second comment is that it's about time to go green. Dalton McGuinty's Liberal government has done good work in reorganizing an electricity sector that was drained of coherence by a decade of Progressive Conservative rule. But it has lagged in setting up what might be called a conservation culture in Ontario.

Yes, it has pushed for new, energy-efficient light bulbs, but it lags behind the jurisdictions Mr. Smitherman just visited in finding new, green ways of generating power.

The Second Coming of Peter Lougheed

The problem has been that the electricity sector is filled with "Dougs" - dumb old utility guys whose mindset is to dismiss conservation and favour big power plants and long transmission lines to bring their electricity to cities. Their clubhouse has been the Ontario Power Authority, the agency the Liberals established nearly four years ago to provide the government with advice on how to sustain a reliable electricity system. The OPA has underplayed the potential of conservation and renewable energy programs because its leaders simply didn't conceive of them as integral to Ontario's future.

Marion Fraser, who advised energy ministers on green issues from 2003 until earlier this year, calls the OPA "a barrier to success" and blames it for "creating conservation and renewable-energy chaos."

Mr. Smitherman seems sympathetic. He has told the OPA to "tweak" its Integrated Power System Plan to increase the scope of renewable energy, accelerate conservation targets and explore biomass generation and other innovations. "We're raising the bar," he told a meeting of the Ontario Energy Association last week.

The minister denies that his speech was intended as a shot over the bow of the OPA, although that's how his audience took it. "They got their marching orders," says one veteran industry official. Mr. Smitherman prefers, instead, to see his speech as a dose of encouragement for the industry to do better. But he adds that "we have anticipation and expectation that our intervention will allow the OPA to be more aggressive in pursuit of renewables."

It's more than coincidence that the OPA is now being run by Colin Andersen, a former deputy minister of Finance who is seen by the industry as more willing to advance the government's green goals than his predecessor, Jan Carr. Mr. Andersen signalled this last week when he told the energy association that "energy policy ... is ultimately the responsibility of our elected representatives."

One unintended consequence of the push for green is that it could reduce the need for nuclear power. Mr. Smitherman says that's not on the table now, but if conservation causes demand to plummet he (or his successors) will have to rethink just how much baseload power is needed, and expensive nukes will be the first to go.

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