Six Months In to the Green Energy Act and Ontario Regulation 359/09

An excellent vantage point, but not much of a view.

The most exciting part of working under a new piece of legislation is that no one, and that includes the people who wrote it, knows what it means yet.

So far what it means is a whole lot more work under a process that was meant to streamline things–but never mind. The learning curve is so steep we’re using grappling hooks and pulleys to climb it.

Ontario, you may remember, had that horrendous summer blackout in 2003, along with most of the northeastern United States. That blackout resulted in part from decades of mismanagement of Ontario’s electricity system: no new construction to keep pace with the exponential growth in population or demand, or to replace aging and fragile generation or interconnection infrastructure. You know how your cell phone can burn out in about six months? And a toaster or a kettle will work for a couple of years, maybe a decade? Our electricity infrastructure also has a shelf life, and in order to keep the cost of Ontario’s electricity to consumers artificially low, for decades, successive governments did absolutely nothing about it.*

We import electricity from elsewhere, which would be fine if the transmission system were up to date and functioning well, but it isn’t. A lot of the electricity we import is coal-generation, and while Ontario has an abundance of hydro power thanks to our large rivers, it is tapped out. Moreover, old-style hydro generation has enormous environmental costs. If you’ve ever had any concerns about the impacts of wind turbines on birds, consider that fish cannot swim around water turbines.

Anyway. Basically, despite our huge hydro capacity, we depend on coal generation transmitted through an ageing and faltering system, leaving us vulnerable to blackouts and problems with supply and killing hundreds of Ontarians each year** from air pollution. Conservation is huge. It has by far the greatest potential contribution to our energy woes. We should absolutely conserve as much as we can, and due to our conservation efforts (plus the recession) Ontario’s electricity demand was the lowest in 2009 since 1997.

BUT.

But.

Conservation alone will not allow us to turn those coal plants off.

And we need to turn the coal plants off, because they’re killing people. Not to mention destroying the environment via global climate change.

In order to turn the coal plants off, we need new, non-polluting electricity generation. We need it NOW. Actually, we need it fifteen years ago. But it didn’t happen fifteen years ago, in part because a) renewable electricity doesn’t pay enough to make it worthwhile to build, and b) the Environmental Assessments required to get permission to build it took too long and were too expensive.*** The Green Energy Act attempted to fix the former by establishing Feed-In Tariffs, or fixed rates for electricity produced by various renewable means (for large-scale wind, the price is $0.135/kwh), over 20 year contracts. Ontario Regulation 359/09 attempted to fix the latter by creating the Renewable Energy Approval process, meant to streamline and simplify Environmental Assessments. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way, but that’s a post for another day.

If you read the newspapers, and in particular the National Post and Toronto Sun, which seem to make careers out of taking potshots at anything anybody else does without ever proposing solutions of their own, you’ll read–frequently, and perhaps daily–about how we can’t afford the FIT rates for electricity. In fact, we can’t afford not to. This is counter-intuitive, I know–why is $0.056/kwh for coal too expensive, and $0.135/kwh for wind dirt cheap?

Because coal doesn’t cost $0.056/kwh.

(And nuclear doesn’t cost $0.086/kwh–this one easily dismissed, since that lovely stranded debt charge that shows up every month on your hydro statement relates directly to the substantial cost over-runs of Ontario’s current nuclear fleet. In fact last year when the Ontario government tried to commission new private nuclear investment, they found that no company was willing to undertake it for close to what the government planned to pay.)

Because coal kills workers. Thousands of people die every year from mining, transporting, refining and burning coal at power plants–69 in 2007 in the United States alone. You don’t pay for that. Meanwhile China is bragging that “only” 2,631 people died in their coal mines in 2009. I could not uncover a global statistic, but you can believe the total number of people who die just from the coal mining–not including black lung disease, not including injuries, not including refining, processing, transporting and burning–is substantial. And, for you, the end consumer, free!

Because coal sickens and kills Ontarians. We pay billions of dollars every year in health care costs for people with asthma–doctor and hospital visits, prescription drugs, lost days at work and school. And hundreds of those people will die, many of them children. A 2004 study by Daniel Kammen & Sergio Pacca, published in the Annual Review of Environmental Resources, found that when deaths and illnesses were factored in to the price of coal-fired generation, the price per kilowatt hour was fifty cents. That is ten times what you pay. Again–forty-five cents worth per kilowatt hour of injury, illness, disease and mortality is, for you, the end consumer, free.**** (Or so you think.)

Air pollution doesn’t just trigger asthma, it causes asthma. A recent well-publicized study shows that decreased smoking in Canada over the past few decades has led to a decrease in asthma among Canada’s children. Smoking is not the only form of air pollution that causes asthma. Outdoor athletes are far more likely to suffer from asthma than indoor couch potatoes, contrary to what you might assume, because they are far more exposed to air pollution.

Coal mining, refining and burning destroys the environment. The tops of mountains are blasted off. Rivers are filled with toxic sludge. Entire forests disappear. You don’t pay for any of that on your hydro bill–but you should.

You do not pay for the carbon output of coal on your hydro bill. Your kids get to pay that one, in the form of a dangerous climate.

The price of coal-fired electricity on your hydro bill reflects only a tiny percentage of the actual cost. It is heavily, absurdly subsidized by all levels of government, in order to placate consumers. You pay for coal-fired electricity in your hydro bill, and also in your tax support to Health Canada, the Ministry of Health, Environment Canada, to the Ministry of Environment, to the Ministry of Natural Resources, to your local Public Health Unit, and on and on. You just don’t know how much.

At $0.0135/kwh for wind, you are paying for everything. That cost reflects the total, as it factors in the environmental assessment and any requried post-construction mitigation for impacts to wildlife. There is no mining, no processing, no transporting, and no burning.  No one dies in a Wind Mine accident. No explosions. No blasted mountaintops, no ruined rivers. No kids in the hospital with asthma. No deaths. No hospital visits. No smog advisories. No kids kept inside on beautiful sunny days because the air will hurt them. And no ruined climate jeapordizing the future of human civilization.

All of that is included in the 13.5c/kwh for wind projects in Ontario under the FIT program.

It’s a bargain.

~~~~~

*This is like keeping your housing costs down by refusing to fix the leaky roof; in the long term, you won’t just need to replace the roof, but the walls, the floors, and all your stuff, from water damage. The motivation is clear enough: Ontario and nearby provinces and states were manufacturing powerhouses; keeping electricity prices low was a way to compete for factories and jobs. This has backfired and needs to be addressed–not least because it didn’t work, and caused Ontario to lag behind jurisdictions with higher electricity prices in both standard of living and productivity.

**249 in Ontario in 2009, despite our coal electricity generation being at the lowest level since 1945

***Ask anyone in the business of renewable energy how they feel about needing to conduct expensive, multi-year environmental assessments to build solar- or wind-farms to SAVE the planet when private developers can slap up a subdivision or an office tower without so much as a by-your-leave, when office towers are the leading cause of human-related death for migratory birds and both represent colossal wastes of energy and resources.

**** Their study found that the total price of wind was less than ten cents/kwh with human health costs factored in.

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