The Toronto Star: Tyler Hamilton - June 8 2009
It appears, on the surface, such an easy thing to do.Ontario wants to rid itself of coal-fired generation and Quebec has plenty of hydroelectric power to go around. Why doesn't Ontario just strike a deal with our neighbour to the east and import all the emission-free electricity it needs?
Some environmentalists say a deal with Quebec would not only help Ontario get off coal and use less natural gas generation, it would also lessen our dependence on nuclear power.
Ontario, for instance, could export surplus wind power that's generated overnight and allow Quebec to store more water in its hydroelectric reservoirs. During periods of peak demand, Ontario could then import the energy stored in those reservoirs back into the province.
"Greater use of Hydro imports from Quebec is one of the most secure and cost effective ways to help Ontario move toward a 100-per-cent renewable electricity grid," the Ontario Clean Air Alliance argues in a recent research report.
The perfect marriage, maybe, but Quebec isn't necessarily into monogamy. Even if it were, Ontario isn't the only jurisdiction looking to tie the knot. Hydro Quebec exports a majority of its power output to the U.S. Northeast through interconnections with New England and New York State.
New York in particular has expressed a recent interest in dramatically increasing its purchases from Quebec. Ontario, where electricity prices are about 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, must compete against New York, where the average retail price is 15 cents (U.S.) per kilowatt-hour.
"The way they (Quebec) would set that price is based on what they could get for it in the marketplace," Ontario Energy and Infrastructure Minister George Smitherman recently told the Toronto Star editorial board.
"That (price) is the prevailing Northeast U.S. rate for gas-fired generation, which makes Quebec's hydroelectric power to us a pretty expensive proposition."
Electricity is a provincial jurisdiction. It's Quebec's constitutional right to play hardball with Ontario; it has no obligation to cut us a good deal out of patriotic love. Smitherman suggested Ontario, empowered by a new Green Energy Act, should look for a solution from within.
"If we are transitioning to a greener energy supply mix, which we are, do we want to rely on imports of capacity that is produced in other jurisdictions, or would we rather gain the economic development benefits by better harnessing our own green-energy capability?"
But just generating more clean power isn't enough. Being green and self- sufficient as a province also means having the ability to store enormous amounts of intermittent or surplus renewable power - or surplus nuclear, for that matter - so it can be used at a time of our choosing.
Ontario has a bit of this, but nowhere near enough.
Last November, you'll recall, Smitherman directed the Ontario Power Authority to review its 20-year electricity system plan with an eye to adding more renewables and accelerating conservation efforts.
Within this directive Smitherman asked the power authority to review "potential for pumped storage in hydroelectric reservoirs."
Not much has been made of this, but the pumped storage directive is an important one. If Ontario developed enough capacity, it could store surplus and off-peak renewable power behind its own hydroelectric dams and dispatch that energy when it's most needed.
We wouldn't need Quebec imports. We would be less dependent on natural gas plants to manage our renewables and we would be better positioned to replace aging nuclear plants with green power, assuming it's a direction we choose.
The power authority has yet to report back to the government, but Amir Shalaby, vice-president of power system planning, said the value of pumped storage has to be weighed against a range of options and government goals.
The more renewable energy we add to the grid the more valuable pumped storage becomes, he said. If we're aiming for renewables to just be 5 per cent of the mix, then it isn't worth the investment. If we're aiming for 15 or 20 per cent, then it has big value.
In many ways, the Pickering B nuclear generating station is the wild card.
If the government decides to refurbish Pickering B, or replace it with a new plant, that will limit how much renewables we can put on the grid. If a decision is made to replace Pickering B with renewables, then storage will become a crucial part of the mix.
"The question now is whether it is the right part of the mix going forward," said Shalaby. "It could well be."