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Ontario's Green Energy Act criticized for supporting nuclear power

Initiative largely applauded by environmental groups as step in right direction

Jon Stoller - March 8, 2009

"The Green Energy Act is certainly a serious attempt to strengthen green energy in the province, but the government seems to be going on two tracks. On the one hand, they're putting some serious effort into [renewable energy] … but on the other hand, they may also be going full steam ahead on new nuclear acquisitions" -Mark Lutes, climate change and energy policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation

Several environmental groups are meeting the McGuinty government's recently proposed Ontario Green Energy Act with positive regard, but concerns are nonetheless being raised at the Ontario government's decision to make a long-term commitment to nuclear power in the midst of what are otherwise significant environmental resolutions.

"The Green Energy Act is certainly a serious attempt to strengthen green energy in the province, but the government seems to be going on two tracks," said Mark Lutes, climate change and energy policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation. "On the one hand, they're putting some serious effort into [renewable energy] … but on the other hand, they may also be going full steam ahead on new nuclear acquisitions … If they invest significant resources now in the tens of millions of dollars they're thinking of investing in nuclear, it would undermine the intentions of the Green Energy Act."

Lutes is not the only one who has expressed concern at the McGuinty government's seemingly contradictory message surrounding their commitment to green energy. Jack Gibbons, the chair of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance voiced an opinion similar to that of Lutes and the David Suzuki Foundation.

"Yes, we think the current proposed act is good, it's an important step forward, but there's much more that needs to be done. In particular, the government is planning to sign a contract … for the construction of two new nuclear reactors … and that would be a huge mistake. That would lock us into nuclear power for another 60 years," he said.

But Lorne Burger, a spokesperson for Infrastructure Ontario, pointed to the current unreliability of renewable energy sources as justification for the government's commitment to nuclear power:

"One of the drawbacks at the moment with [renewable energy sources] is the intermittency of it," said Burger. "So when the wind doesn't blow, you don't get power from the wind turbines. So in order to get on demand power, you need to have a stable base of power … right now the province gets that from nuclear and hydroelectric."

According to Gibbons, the construction of these nuclear reactors would cost taxpayers about $26 billion, money that could be much better spent on energy efficiency and renewable energy.

"We absolutely have to make sure the government doesn't make that huge mistake, because if we don't invest in nuclear power, we have the opportunity to move Ontario towards a 100 per cent renewable grid in 20 years … That's a huge opportunity that we must not miss, and we will miss if the government goes ahead with its reckless plans to give a big blank check to the nuclear industry," he said.

But despite their concerns about nuclear power, both Lutes and Gibbons took the time to stress just how significant the Ontario Green Energy Act's commitment to green energy is.

"We haven't seen a lot of the details yet," said Lutes. "The Green Energy Act is just a framework in principles in the act itself, and a lot of the tariffs for green energy, the rules and a lot of things will be rolled out over the next few months, but certainly we have to recognize that this is a serious attempt to provide the right kind of regulatory policies for green energy."

In addition, the Green Energy Act provides a commitment to the complete phase-out of coal-fired power plants within the next few years, a commitment that Gibbons regards as an essential step in the right direction.

"I believe the government of Ontario takes climate change very seriously. They're the only jurisdiction in the world that's committed to phasing out dirty coal-fired power plants to protect public health and the environment. Ontario's coal phase-out is the single largest greenhouse gas reduction initiative in North America, and it will be equivalent to taking 7 million cars off the road."

With regards to whether the McGuinty government is capable of adapting to the demands of environmental groups, Gibbons noted that, "With governments, there's a lot of inertia, there's a lot of bureaucracy, and it's often hard for government to adopt new ideas. So the McGuinty government is doing many things right, but they're not perfect, and there's still a lot of room for improvement."

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