Who would have imagined Ontario as Ground Zero for the global anti-wind movement, pitting people power against wind power? Instead of a low-carbon environment, the governing Liberals generated a highly toxic political environment.
Yet it is economics, more than politics, that is causing the greatest drag on wind power today. Diminishing returns have prompted the Liberals to tilt against wind turbines.
The pace of future wind expansion will be scaled back over the next 20 years, according to the Long Term Energy Plan released this month by the government. The latest plan is a belated admission that previous energy plans were off target.
To understand how much the Liberals miscalculated, it’s worth looking at another report that preceded this one. Prepared for influential clients in the energy industry by global consulting firm IHS-CERA, the title of this private study says it all: “Too Much, Too Fast – The Pace of Greening the Ontario Power System.”
It treats our wind turbines as a case study on how greening the power system can plunge it into the red. A cautionary tale for international clients, the report would have been essential reading for provincial energy planners as they looked for the light at the end of our wind tunnel:
“What happened in Ontario … provide(s) universal lessons regarding how a simple, appealing, but unrealistic idea can intersect with the political process and set in motion environmental policies that run counter to the underlying costs and complexity of the electric power sector.”
Over the past decade, the government rapidly signed contracts for 10,000 megawatts of wind and solar – exceeding the coal capacity it had targeted for elimination. Yet dirty coal and clean wind are not interchangeable, despite the equivalency implied in the Liberals’ successful campaign pitches.
You can burn coal (or natural gas) when needed. But you can’t make the wind blow on demand.
In Ontario, “wind conditions tend to produce power least when consumers want power most.” Additional wind capacity requires more standby power from natural gas – which explains why the Liberals had to build (and in two cases, cancel) so many gas-fired power plants.
“This back-up requirement meant that as a source of new power supply, the integration of wind by natural gas-fired technologies was 30 per cent more expensive” than by gas alone.
Another problem: You can’t make the wind stop blowing.
“Wind conditions tend to produce power most when consumers need power least … Overgeneration creates an operational problem that requires reducing output from hydro, nuclear, and/or wind generators.”
Unfortunately, most of that unneeded wind power didn’t displace dirty coal, but forced costly cuts in clean hydro and emissions-free nuclear power. Ramping down hydro is hard, given natural water flows. Nuclear shutdowns are expensive, given the hefty restart costs.
Why did the Liberals sell a mismatched green vision, and why did voters (mostly in urban areas) buy into it? The study’s authors appear puzzled by the lack of government foresight and the electorate’s lack of oversight.
“Looking back … too many people believed that renewable power was a direct substitute for conventional power plants, including coal-fired,” they conclude. “The simple idea to replace coal-fired power plants with wind turbines went unchallenged in Ontario and made the green vision appear plausible.”
Resistance to wind turbines emanated mostly from rural residents and was quickly exploited by opposition politicians eager to steal Liberal seats. While the NIMBYists beat their breasts, the bean counters took their eyes off the turbines. Politics trumped economics.
Ontario’s latest long-term plan reads like a disguised damage control strategy that takes its cue from the private consultant’s report quoted here. Others in the global energy industry who read the IHS-CERA report effectively had a sneak peak:
“Lessons from the Ontario power system provide valuable insights,” the consultants write. “Trying to do too much too fast will inevitably result in cost escalation that … drives monthly power bills beyond politically acceptable levels. The unintended consequence is political backlash.”
And double jeopardy: Not just NIMBYism, but billion-dollar boondoggles.
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