Our Electric Future – Renewable

It should be pretty clear by now that every aspect of life will be increasingly electrically driven in the near future. We’re not just talking about automobiles (there are something like 52 different models of electric and hybrid vehicles offered now). We might be plugging in toilets like the Propelair system (www.propelair.com) now being sold in Britain that uses water and compressed air for a 1.5 L flush. Computers and 3D printing are making huge advances in manufacturing: “In the next five years we will see what was seemingly science fiction-type research quickly make its way into mainstream processes in almost every industry.” (The Great Disruption, R Smith, D Free, 2016) So it is equally important that our electric resources be as affordable as possible.

Various missteps have led us to the situation where the delivery of electricity is more expensive than the power itself. While public outrage has grown over the cost of electricity in Ontario, there are conflicting ideas about how to correct the situation. The Ontario government is reconsidering how it buys electricity by becoming “technology agnostic”, i.e. not favouring any particular technology. It also has doubts about time-of-use pricing. Ontario’s Energy Minister went on to say:

People should have the flexibility to sign up for electricity plans that better suit their needs just like they can shop around for different telephone and Internet service plans”.

Wait! What? The people who brought us the useless basic ‘skinny’ cable TV packages and the world’s most expensive mobile phone rates are the model for future electric supply? Mobile phone and internet packages are like a corn field maze – it may look like a lot of choice, but in the end there is only one way out! That’s because these plans are not consumer driven but profit driven. ‘Bundled’ services show the price of everything, but not the price of anything. More reason for us to worry about the ongoing sale of Hydro One into more private ownership. 

Looking back, the old Ontario Hydro left $38.1 billion in debt, a portion of which was backed by assets leaving “$20.9 billion of stranded debt not supported by those assets”… The unfunded liability was $4.4 billion as at March 31, 2016, a decrease of $3.7 billion from March 31, 2015. This is the twelfth consecutive annual decline in the unfunded liability and $15 billion below the $19.4 billion level as at April 1, 1999.” (source: Ontario Electricity Financial Corporation). We should remember that more than 20% of that debt is outstanding after 17 years when faced with the slick PR campaign being waged by the nuclear industry. It is still, as some say, the most expensive way to boil water.

“The latest edition of the Sunshine List includes 7,632 employees of Ontario Power Generation. Their earnings total $1.07 billion. The last time Hydro One workers were on the Sunshine List (in 2014), there were 4,279 employees, with salaries totalling $550 million. The auditor general flagged in 2013 that generous salaries, pensions and benefits at OPG — especially among top executives — were partly to blame for rising hydro prices.” (Why hydro bills are so high in Ontario, CBC News, November 2016)

Ontario plans to spend another $13 billion on nuclear facilities. That amount could pay for $10,000 in energy conservation upgrades for about a quarter of all Ontario households (about 1.3 million), or turn a smaller fraction of them into local renewable energy producers instead.

The popular notion is that current problems are due to the adoption of large-scale renewable energy projects. That’s just part of the story because demand for electricity has been declining in Ontario while supply has increased.

How do we fix this? Some suggest cancelling investment in conservation programs and cancelling renewable energy projects. Or should we look more closely at the impact of existing nuclear facilities?

“Bruce and Darlington nuclear plants are necessary to Ontario’s long-term energy needs”, according to former Energy Minister, George Smitherman, “but it’s pure politics that keeps Pickering open. Closing it would save billions in unnecessary costs and curb safety concerns about the aging plant, he said – especially given how well-paid its power workers are. But other experts say buying out rather than phasing out those workers would cost more than it would save.”

“The opposition parties love to hammer the government for selling off excess power to other jurisdictions, but it is a necessary part of the system. Because some power generated, such as nuclear, can’t be ramped up and down to meet demand, sometimes Ontario makes too much and sells it to New York or Quebec or other places.”

“Transmission is a big line item on customer’s bills, but it’s generation that really drives the cost. That’s why having surplus power could actually save money in the long run – and why conservation, both by consumers and industry is so important: Less demand means less power is needed and the most expensive generation contracts can be phased out.”

(Getting beyond ‘wear a sweater’: Seven ideas for how to fix Ontario’s hydro system, Financial Post, October 2016)

We can expect demand to increase with the adoption of new technologies like electric transportation (road, rail and air?), and new sophisticated computer driven manufacturing processes for both materials and manufacturing. Supply can be increased by intensive conservation measures.

But energy storage technology is also making big strides. In fact, “one of the UK’s largest battery-based energy storage facilities [was] connected to the grid [March 2016] as part of new research led by the University of Sheffield … A recent report by the National Infrastructure Commission has suggested that energy storage could contribute to innovations that could save consumers £8 billion a year by 2030 as well as securing the UK’s energy supply for generations.” (Giant UK battery launched to tackle challenges in energy storage, U of Sheffield News) Energy storage is the coming ‘missing link’ that will make renewable energy practical on a large scale, eliminate the need for gas-powered on-demand generators and stop the uneconomic sale of ‘excess’ power.

Environmental groups including Greenpeace Canada are campaigning for a “100% Renewable Ontario” and [8,000] 9,000 people have signed a petition supporting it. Ontario will be preparing a new energy policy and comments can be posted to the Energy Ministry until December 16 at:

https://www.ebr.gov.on.ca/ERS-WEB-External/searchComment.do?actionType=add&noticeId=MTMwNTE1&statusId=MTk3NzQ0&noticeHeaderIdString=MTMwNTEx

The 100% Renewable Ontario Toolkit is accessed at:

https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0B04sxrd_dGTndnNfQ2RKT1MtaG8

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