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Those political winds keep blowing  

Credit:  By Randall Denley, The Ottawa Citizen, www.ottawacitizen.com 4 September 2010 ~~

Earlier this week, Energy Minister Brad Duguid told us what he thinks we need to know about the province’s soaring electricity bills. In a Citizen interview, Duguid told a simple story. When the Liberals came to power, our electrical system was “weak, unreliable and dirty.” Now, the system is “strong, reliable and clean.” Got all of that?

The reason for the big price increases, Duguid said, is because so much has been spent to create that strong, reliable and clean system. Again, that’s simple to understand. Unfortunately, it’s far from the whole story.

What Ontario has actually done is commit a lot of your money to create wind energy that we don’t need. We’ve got plenty of power. Ontario’s peak demand is about 25,000 megawatts. We have the capacity to generate 35,000 megawatts, although not all is consistently available. Even with some parts of the system underproducing this week, we had spare generation capacity of 3,000 megawatts.

Despite the oversupply of power, the McGuinty government is paying wind producers three times the going rate for electricity, but that’s not the sweetest part of the deal. On days when there is surplus power, wind farm companies will be paid not to produce electricity.

All the McGuinty government likes to talk about is wind, but of the 8,000 megawatts of generating capacity added since the Liberal government took over, only 1,433 megawatts are renewables, primarily wind. More than half of the total is gas generation, about one-quarter is nuclear and the rest is hydroelectric power imported from Quebec.

The use of coal is going down, as Duguid says, but that’s driven more by falling demand for power than it is by renewable energy. The government plans to shut down 2,000 megawatts of coal-fired generating capacity as part of an election promise from 2003, but it doesn’t need even a single megawatt of wind to accomplish that goal. The new nuclear and gas generation would do the job.

Duguid describes weaning the province off coal as “the single biggest greenhouse gas initiative in all of North America.” Given that bold statement, it’s surprising to know that there is no comparative study of the greenhouse gas emissions from the new gas generation that is replacing the coal.

The electrical grid relies on a steady flow of power, so wind plants need to be backed up with another power source. Right now, that’s coal. Under the new and improved McGuinty plan, the backup will be gas. Gas produces lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal, but gas plants have to be kept on standby, ready to replace wind. That means they burn fuel at 60 to 70 per cent of capacity even when not producing power. Coal plants consume far less fuel on standby. The real greenhouse gas reduction is unknown.

The common thread here is that Ontario’s wind strategy is not driven by facts, it’s driven by politics. Endorsing wind power makes the McGuinty government seem green and modern. Building nuclear or gas plants, or importing clean and green hydro power from Quebec, doesn’t have the political cachet of wind.

Wind is so unimportant that you could pull the plug on every wind farm in Ontario and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. On a good day, wind produces about one per cent of Ontario’s power. When all the McGuinty wind turbines are finally installed, the number might get to five per cent.

That’s when you will start to see wind companies being paid not to produce power. With the current low demand, Ontario already has days when it produces more baseload power than the system can handle. Last year was the worse year for surplus power problems “in decades,” says Ontario Power Authority vice-president of communications Ben Chin.

When that happens, something has to be shut down. That’s why Ontario has a “take or pay” system to compensate wind power companies. Chin says this is quite common elsewhere and power providers need that certainty to make the big investment in wind. Maybe, but the wind producers now on line didn’t get that deal and they aren’t being paid as much per kilowatt hour, either. Under the Liberal plan, Ontarians will be paying for wind power whether it’s generated or not.

Despite the lack of demand for wind power, there is more to come. The high-priced new wind program and the development agreement with Korean industrial giant Samsung will bring total nominal wind capacity to 5,000 megawatts, although the variability of wind means that only about 1,500 megawatts will be generated most days. Here’s the good news, though. The provincial transmission system can’t handle any more wind without big investments in wires, so that will likely cool the wind mania.

Ontario’s quest for clean, green power is taking place while neighbouring Quebec is overloaded with power, most of it produced by water. The Quebec hydro price is “very, very competitive,” Chin says. Buying more of that power wouldn’t boost the government’s image, but it would be good for consumers and the environment.

While wind doesn’t do much for our power supply or the environment, it does make a useful excuse for the politically sensitive increases in your power bills. Those increases are clearly being driven up by the HST, which does nothing to make Ontario’s power grid cleaner. Bills are also going to rise because the provincial government has chosen to give a power price break to major industries. Again, that doesn’t make the system better or greener, it just shifts cost. Power rates are also going up because the provincially-owned power generating company isn’t happy with its profits.

That’s the simple message you aren’t going to hear from the energy minister.

Source:  By Randall Denley, The Ottawa Citizen, www.ottawacitizen.com 4 September 2010

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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