It's hard to make a Long Term Energy Plan sound exciting. The thing is, energy planning is arguably one of the most important environmental and economic issues facing Ontario today. It hasn't been done well lately, and we are not that optimistic that it will be done well in the coming months, but it needs to be done. And you need to know about it.
An Energy Plan tries to figure out how much power people in Ontario are going to need over a long period of time (say, 20 years). It figures out where that power is going to come from. Then it tells government, developers, and business where to put new power generation technology or what conservation programs to launch.
It is a complicated process, since it is hard to know what the economy will look like decades down the road, what power generation technology will look like, how effective conservation programs can be, or when existing power plants will fall apart. Energy planning also has to factor in how much time everything takes: Building new power plants takes a long time and costs a lot of money. Conservation programs take a while to reach a "critical mass" and have an impact on energy demand.
The law in Ontario says that the government must create an energy plan, and that this plan must be approved by the Ontario Energy Board. The government took a crack at such a plan around 2007. The Energy Board hearing started, but then-Minister Smitherman called off the hearing, sent the plan back to the drawing board, and introduced the Green Energy and Green Economy Act. (The Toronto Star published a good summary of events.)
Now, after two years ... the Long Term Energy Plan is coming! Minister Duguid stated that the plan will be out "before the end of the year". Presumably an Energy Board hearing will not be far behind.
Minister Duguid also said that government has been talking to Ontarians, environmentalists, industry, and people. If government has been listening to all those people, here's what the energy plan will say:
We do need an environmental assessment. An energy plan triggers the provincial environmental assessment process. This is an independent review of the specific energy development proposals that identifies impacts on the environment - both on a project-by-project basis and when all the impacts from all the projects are combined. The last time an energy plan was released, the Ontario government also wrote a regulation exempting it from the environmental assessment process. Given the potential impacts on the environment and the risks to air, water, natural life, and local communities, we cannot afford to skip this kind of oversight again.
We might not need more nuclear power plants. Ontario's energy plans have always had this "nuclear minimum" built in. The government didn't direct its power planning authority to "make the best energy plan you can." The government directed the authority to "make a plan that assumes nuclear power will provide all of the province's minimum energy needs, then add other energy sources and conservation programs to that." If the government's new plan requires this same, unchallenged, unproven assumption, it will always be flawed. They can't create a rational long-term energy plan if they start with such a profound bias towards one technology.
It may be time to embrace a decentralized energy future. If, after reading this far, your head is spinning a bit trying to imagine all the different financial, political, environmental, and social variables that have to be figured out to write an energy plan, you may start to see some of the benefits to a decentralized energy system.
What we have in Ontario is a centralized system - big power plants that send energy to a grid, all centrally planned and mostly government-financed. Even wind turbines are clumped together in large wind "farms". There is a whole different approach to making and sharing energy, though, one that doesn't require so much central planning but won't send us back to the days of Charles Dickens and coal furnaces in every home.
If Ontario gets it right with its new energy plan, the government will start looking at a more exciting energy future. One where solar, wind, thermal, and other sources of energy can be created right at your own home. Where every house can be a little power plant. Where environmental impacts will be much, much smaller and more removed from our drinking water and food supplies. They have the beginnings of such a system in Calgary, but it's not even an option here in Ontario.
Even in Alberta, where decentralized clean energy is being launched, the government is making progress difficult. As has been the case in Ontario, there is opposition to independent decision-making, environmental assessments, and due process. Bill 50 was passed to allow to allow the government to approve "critical needs infrastructure" without regulatory hearings. The plan will cost somewhere between $3.5 and 20-billion, and it is founded on the notion that Alberta needs a lot of transmission infrastructure to support a centralized energy system, and fast.
Why build expensive, difficult to plan, environmentally damaging power plants to generate massive amounts of power in one place, when we could spread generation out? Why try to figure out everything for everyone all at once, when it costs billions of dollars and harms the environment? Why risk all this when we might be able to give individuals more choice about where, how, and when they get their power?
It's a profoundly important question. If the Ontario government's Long Term Energy Plan doesn't ask it, it won't be much of a "Plan" at all.