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Recession powers Ontario to surplus energy

Thestar.ca: Tyler Hamilton - June 12, 2009

A fall in industrial activity and unseasonably cool weather means Ontario continues to generate more electricity than it can use, a problem that can now be tracked online.

The province's Independent Electricity System Operator, which manages supply and demand of power on the grid, began publishing yesterday on its website a rolling 10-day forecast of expected "surplus baseload generaton," broken down hourly.

Over the next 10 days, for example, it is estimating that nuclear, hydroelectric and other forms of generation that must run all the time will produce more power than the province can use over 120 hours, or roughly half the time.

Most of the hours are overnight or on weekends, and at several points surplus baseload generation exceeds 3,500 megawatts, equal to the entire output of Darlington nuclear station.

"There are limited options available to lower output from baseload generators in order to maintain the balance between supply and demand," according to the website, which will update the 10-day forecast every weekday.

"It is expected that incidences of (surplus baseload generation) may increase as Ontario's supply mix continues to change. Current economic conditions have increased the frequency . . . as overall electricity demand has declined."

The system operator said the estimates don't include the option the province has of exporting its surplus power, but during such times it's often given away or sold at a negative price.

Ontario wholesale electricity prices, for example, fell below zero for roughly a third of the 648 hours between March 24 and April 19. Oversupply on June 7 forced nuclear operator Bruce Power, at the request of the system operator, to shut down its 822-megawatt unit 5 reactor. It was kept offline for three days.

Nuclear generators typically don't like shutting down reactors because it can be costly and disruptive to plant operations. They often prefer to sell their electricity at a loss during times of surplus baseload, but sometimes even that's a hard sell if nobody can use the power.

The situation has created an awkward situation for the Ontario government, which is expected to select a reactor technology this summer for a newly planned nuclear plant at Darlington.A decision is also expected this year on whether to refurbish or decommission the reactors at the Pickering B generating station.

Environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, argue that more frequent occasions of surplus baseload are reason enough to not build new nuclear capacity. The government maintains the current situation is mostly related to the recession and won't be a problem once the economy bounces back.

Electricity consumption in the province has fallen since 2006 and another 4 per cent decline is expected this year, according to the system operator. In the first quarter of 2009, wholesale industrial power consumption alone plunged 20 per cent compared to the previous year.

Demand isn't expected to recover before 2011, it said.

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