Ontario close to eliminating coal as electric-power source, a first in North America

Word that Ontario is nearing its long-promised goal of eliminating coal-fired power plants has gotten a lot of play outside the province in scientific, environmental and power industry publications.

Premier Dalton McGuinty last week trumpeted the fact that by the end of this year the last two large-scale coal-fired generating plants will close, leaving only a small backup facility in Thunder Bay operating until the end of 2014.

"Shutting down the last coal plants in Southern Ontario will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save the province $95 million," the premier's office said in a statement.

Scientific American reported the closures will make Ontario the first jurisdiction in North America to shutter its entire fleet of coal-fired power plants.

The two units scheduled to close by the end of this year are the Lambton and Nanticoke generating stations, the latter one of the biggest coal-fired plants in the world, generating 4,000 megawatts of electricity, Scientific American noted.

The Ottawa Citizen reported last year that coal, which a decade ago accounted for a quarter of Ontario's electricity, now generates only 2.8 per cent of the total. It's now exceeded by wind power, which provides three per cent.

The shift "demonstrates how far we’ve come in terms of the changes to the supply mix," said Martine Holmsen, spokeswoman for Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator. "It really represents a turning point in this transition."

Well, not quite. Nuclear power provides more than half (56.4 per cent) of Ontario's electricity, followed by hydro at 22.3 per cent and natural gas at 14.6 per cent, the electricity agency said.

[Related: Environmental watchdog says Ontario backing away from climate-change commitments]

The coal-plant closures were made a year earlier than scheduled but also several years later than McGuinty's 2003 campaign promise to scrap the plants by 2007, the Toronto Star noted. Once elected, McGuinty discovered there were few real alternatives to coal to meet rising demand. The deadline was pushed to 2009, then 2014.

McGuinty's Liberal government passed the Green Energy Act in 2009, which among other things, was aimed at shifting power generation to alternative sources such as wind and solar. Natural gas and wind power are expected to replace most of coal-sourced power, the Pembina Institute's Tim Weis told Scientific American.

Pembina said greenhouse-gas emissions from Ontario's electricity sector have fallen from 40 million tons to 10 million ton in the last decade.

But the closures have been controversial.

"The electricity generated from these two plants is less than half the price of the average of the other (types of) generators," Joe Fierro, vice-president of the Society of Energy Professionals said in a statement reported by the Citizen. "This decision will drive rates up for all ratepayers."

In an op-ed piece in the Toronto Star last May, Tim Weis said rising electricity prices in the province aren't entirely due to using higher-cost renewable sources.

"To start with, electricity prices are going to go up no matter what source of energy we choose to use," Weis wrote.

"Half of the provincial electricity system’s generating capacity — including almost every nuclear reactor — needs to be replaced or rebuilt within the next 10 years and you simply cannot build power plants in 2012 at 1980s prices."

Weis also noted other provinces that use natural gas or hydro power have also experienced rate increases.

"While there’s little respite from rising electricity prices no matter what the source, with renewable energy at least consumers know what they’re paying for," he wrote.

"Ontario is spending billions on wind turbines and solar panels supported by natural gas generation to the benefit of big multinational corporations," Power Workers Union president Don MacKinnon said in a statement, which also lamented the loss of 350 jobs at the two plants.

"Ontario will not likely meet its greenhouse gas targets because of increased dependence on natural gas generation, green job numbers remain elusive and our electricity prices are on the way to becoming among the highest in North America."

The wind-turbine farms have also been controversial, with some residents living near them complaining of health problems from the hum of the whirling giant propellers.

So far, none of the Liberal candidates vying to succeed the departing McGuinty are ready to abandon his green-energy policy.

Sandra Pupatello, one of the front-runners, has defended the so-called Feed-In Tariff, which charges a higher rate for wind power to ensure producers a profit, but conceded it may need adjusting, according to QMI Agency.

"Our commitment to phase out coal-fired energy generation was smartly balanced with our commitment to replace it with sustainable, renewable, clean sources of energy," Pupatello told QMI. "As a result, the province secured some globally significant lasting investments in manufacturing and new generation."

The candidates lauded the green-energy shift's benefits on health and the environment but stressed that projects must have local support to be successful. Gerard Kennedy promised to review the Green Energy Act.

"I'm respectful of the complaints and the problems we've had since the act went into effect in 2009 ... The review will be aimed at fixing issues and creating transparency about our energy costs and choices," he said.