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Ontario’s climate change plan: What now?

How will renewable energy grow when there is little will to build its infrastructure in Ontario’s backyard?

Solar panels

It’s been a difficult year for Ontario residents: forest fires in the North, flooding in the Southwest and recent tornado in the Nation’s capital are the most visible displays of a climate playing havoc with Ontario residents. These events are precisely what climate scientists have been telling us to expect with a warming earth, even if a causal link between a particular weather event and climate change phenomena can never be made.

Previous Liberal governments tried to tackle climate change by introducing legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (The Cap-and Trade Act) and motivate the use, market and adoption of renewable energies (The Green Energy Act).

Then came a new Progressive Conservative government. One of Premier Doug Ford’s first items of business was to repeal his predecessor’s cap-and-trade legislative framework. His government followed that up with plans to repeal of the Green Energy Act, which critics charge was an ill-conceived attempt to grow a renewable energy industrial sector in Ontario. Its repeal also appears to be motivated by the desire for more municipal autonomy, especially in rural communities, where renewable energy projects are often located.

The question now is: how will renewable energy grow when there is little will to build its infrastructure in Ontario’s backyard?

When then Premier Dalton McGuinty introduced the Green Energy Act in 2009, the aim was to wind-down the use of coal-generated electricity plants and to develop a renewable energy industry within Ontario. Its main feature is the Feed-In-Tariff program which pays above-market rates for electricity generated by renewable energy. The Act was mired in controversies and is blamed, though not always fairly, for driving up energy costs and reducing Ontario’s overall economic competitiveness. Ross Mctrick, an economics professor at the University of Guelph, writes:

The focus on wind generation is especially inefficient because production peaks when it is least needed and falls off when it is most needed. Surplus power is regularly exported at a considerable financial loss. On average, due to daily and seasonal wind patterns in Ontario, a 1% increase in wind power production coincides with a 1% reduction in consumer power demand. Eighty percent of Ontario’s generation of electricity from wind power occurs at times and seasons so far out of phase with demand that the entire output is surplus and is exported at a substantial loss. The Auditor-General of Ontario estimates that the province has already lost close to $2 billion on such exports. Data from the Independent Electricity System Operator shows Ontario now loses, on average, $24,000 per operating hour on such sales, totalling $200 million annually. The loss rate will continue to grow with every new wind turbine installation because the mismatch between the timing of wind-powered generation and Ontario electricity demand is structural.

Critics point out, however, that repeal of the Green Energy Act is not necessarily focused on creating a better, more efficient, energy market. Rather, its aim is to give municipalities more autonomy in regulating the development of renewable energy projects. Sarah Powell and Alexandria Pike, both partners at Davies, outline how the repeal restricts renewable energy development in Ontario by changing regulatory instruments found within the Environmental Protection Act and Planning Act. These changes limit provincial interference in municipal powers to enact by-laws or land-use plans, preventing renewable energy projects, like wind farms, from being erected in the backyards of rural citizens who find them noxious. Provisions related to the promotion of renewable energy have been left intact, but substantiating Regulations are yet forthcoming.

Meanwhile, the Ford Government has yet to release its plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or deal with the climate change question. Last week, Dianne Saxe, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario addressed the provincial legislature, expressing her disappointment in the Ford government’s attempt to address climate change, adding that in her view “[m]ost of the cap-and-trade money was funding energy efficiency programs in Ontario communities. She called the proposed replacement climate law “much too weak.”  “It promises undetermined action to achieve undetermined and easily changed targets at some undetermined future time, with no criteria or consequences,” she said. “It is a license to do little or nothing in the face of our largest threat.