Toward a green utility

The Ottawa Citizen: February 13, 2009

Short of concern about the future of the economy, the environment has been the main worry of people throughout the world.

Much of that concern, unfortunately, has been tsk-tsking about the demise of the polar ice cap or politically appropriate comments in the SUV on the long commute home after viewing the movie An Inconvenient Truth.

In fact, one of the failures of the government of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has been its inability to mobilize people to the environmental cause. And that's unfortunate because the least expensive way of retaining electrical capacity in Ontario's grid is through conservation. Mr. McGuinty should have Ontarians thinking constantly about turning off that light bulb, shutting down the computer, not leaving the television running unwatched and buying low-energy appliances.

But Mr. McGuinty has shied away from launching a large media campaign enlisting the help of Ontarians in this quest. While a campaign might be expensive, it is much cheaper than building more electrical capacity.

Yet there is a more immediate goal. According to the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, the province could be completely coal-free by next year if Queen's Park enacted a tough Green Energy Act and promoted conservation.

This is more than just a nice-to-have. Taking coal out of the Ontario energy mix would save the equivalent of the annual emissions of 2.3 million cars. This would be a massive boon to the environment, remarkably inexpensive and surprisingly effective.

The response by Terry Young of the Independent Electricity System Operator is disappointing. Mr. Young says that the new power on the grid next year will be gas-fired and might not initially be reliable. So his organization is reluctant to phase out coal-powered electrical production, fearing the lack of capacity.

That's bad news for Ontario taxpayers who are already covering a huge hydro debt and have seen billions of dollars squandered on fixing and refixing balky nuclear reactors.

The premier should read the riot act to the system operator, saying that it should be on board for all conservation measures and that the new gas plants need to be operating reliably right off the top. Ontarians expect a car -- which doesn't cost millions of dollars to build -- to drive off the dealer's lot. We should expect the same of new power stations. Perhaps this is a new concept for the system operator given its wonky nuclear component.

Mr. Young goes on to explain that new wind power energy is not reliable because the wind doesn't always blow. Surely, Ontarians already know that. Mr. Young doesn't need to talk down to the people who pay his salary. Instead, Mr. Young should be enthusiastically behind conservation measures and just as supportive of getting out of the coal business. That's what Ontarians want and they pay the bills and debt -- some of which were created by incompetence at the public utility.

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