The belief that Ontario is in the midst of an energy crisis has dominated energy planning in recent years. The technology we have is seen as either dated (too polluting, too crumbling) or incapable of meeting the needs of the near-future. The only solution, we've been told, is to invest in an electricity system that looks pretty much like the one we have today: a mix of coal and nuclear power with some token renewable energy and conservation projects to appease the public.
On the environmental front, science is telling us that global warming, mercury contamination, and nuclear waste are wreaking havoc on our air and water. On the industry front, government and corporations are telling us that we are running out of electricity so fast that we can't afford thorough, open decision-making processes. Apparently, the inescapable conflict is a desire to protect the environment and a need to find more power, and fast.
A few recent, quiet announcements from various corners of the energy industry challenge the notion of an energy crisis and should lead to a shift in energy planning policies in Ontario.
A report from Ontario's electricity systems operator, for example, contradicts concerns that the province may soon run out of power. The Independent Electricity System Operator stated that we may actually have more power than previously thought.
"As we look out to the longer term, the future is better than it's ever been," Paul Murphy, chief executive officer of the IESO told the Toronto Star last month. Murphy said the system operator is so comfortable with the outlook that the province can afford some delay in the development of new generation, as well as conservation and demand-management programs aimed at lowering overall and peak electricity consumption", reported the Star. In the same report, the IESO recommended that the province expedite the approvals process for new energy supplies.
In a single report, the IESO seems to challenge the notion that we're about to run out of power while simultaneously declaring that we can "afford" to "delay" environmental protection (via conservation). That's confusing.
Meanwhile, Bruce Power, Canada's first private nuclear generating company, is preparing to send its surplus energy south of the border. On April 3, 2007, the National Energy Board approved Bruce Power's application to export up to 2,000 MW of electricity. The application was granted with the understanding that Bruce Power is already generating enough surplus electricity to export some to the United States. If there is indeed a power shortage in Ontario, the export licence is also confusing.
On the renewable energy front, the province's decision to "streamline" the environmental assessment process is dividing communities. One of the most controversial proposals is right here on Lake Ontario. Canadian Hydro plans to build 86 wind turbines on the rural island at the end of Lake Ontario. Some residents support the windmill project, believing it will be good for the local economy. Some residents are concerned about the size and location of the project, believing a rushed decision could forever alter the unique nature of the island.
If we have enough energy to delay conservation projects and to export nuclear power to the United States, why don't we have enough time to make sure new power - even "clean" power - is planned wisely and to the benefit of the entire community? This, too, is confusing.
The conflict over windmills on Wolfe Island reveals a deeper truth about energy planning: lack of public consultation will breed cynicism and divide communities, no matter what the technology may be. The IESO report and Bruce Power's export licence tell us we might have the time to plan wisely after all.
The facts simply do not support the notion that we must act quickly, give up on environmental protection, expedite public consultation, and find more power fast. That no one is challenging this notion is Ontario's real power crisis.