Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
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Editorial
February 22, 2024
Volume 194 No. 8

Editorial: Green Power

Energy is an enigma. It has many forms — motion, heat, light, work, electricity, chemistry — but the thing itself is elusive. It cannot be created or destroyed, but shifts from one form to another.

It’s also a practical necessity. Ontario transforms huge amounts of it for transportation, heating — and stoking the economy. Its vast geography and cold climate make Canada an outsize energy consumer; it is the fourth largest per capita user of energy in the world. Our consumption doubles every 35 years.

Many things, including technology, have improved the standard of living over the last 50 years, but none more so than our use of energy — almost all of it from fossil fuels.

The energy infrastructure needed to support that standard of living is immense. It takes decades to plan and build, as to repair and replace.

And now there are increasingly difficult constraints. Planning cannot be solely based on finances because the climate crisis makes future costs and benefits uncertain. Nor can we ignore greenhouse gas emissions: the climate bumped up against 1.5°C heating in 2023. James Hanson estimates 2°C is within 25 years. For climate scientists, that is the upper limit before climate breakdown.

Yet “green” energy solutions require resources we do not have. Neodymium (for wind turbine magnets); lithium (for vehicle batteries); transition metals (cobalt and copper to connect everything); rare-earth metals, semiconductor-grade silicon. They are all sourced elsewhere, from China to Brazil. And quantities are limited everywhere.

The focus of Ontario’s energy planning is on producing yet more energy to power yet more growth. That’s simply unsustainable.

Nor do we have the time to establish the green energy supply chains, from mining through production to deployment, required to replace fossil fuel infrastructure. And then green infrastructure, too, needs repair and replacing. Wind turbines and solar panels have a 30-year lifespan. What will happen to them when they must be jettisoned?

What, then, is needed to safeguard our future? A mix of sustainable energy solutions that conserve available resources.

The first step, then, is to stop demanding — and powering — energy growth. As the saying goes, “if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” The tight link between energy and the economy means, sooner or later, the emergence of new economic and social paradigms — things most people are not yet willing to talk about. They require fundamental changes to the way we live — consuming less and caring more, about both each other and our planet.

Yet growth is the entire premise behind Ontario’s new Energy Plan, called “Powering our Growth,” which is as much a marketing document as a planning one.

It has some merits. It stresses non-carbon-emitting nuclear power and renewable energy storage (including pumped water at nearby Marmora). 

Nonetheless, the focus of Ontario’s energy planning is on producing yet more energy to power yet more growth. That’s simply unsustainable. Far from discouraging the wasteful use of energy, Ontario subsidizes it by $6 billion a year. If the official green energy rebate for a passive house is about $200, hidden hydro subsidies run to five to ten times as much for a large, energy-wasting home.

The handouts extend to cars: nothing for electric vehicles, but reduced gas taxes and cancelled license-plate fees for all. Greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles have increased by 50% since 1990. Basics, like making homes more energy-efficient and encouraging smaller vehicles, are left out entirely.

An obvious counter to growth is conservation. It is disconcerting, to say the least, that “Powering our Growth” hands that job to Enbridge Gas. A major theme of this document is Ontario’s cozy relationship with its energy suppliers. Right now, the government is siding with Enbridge Gas in a dispute with its independent regulator, the Ontario Energy Board, which, for the first time ever, has declared installing more fossil fuel infrastructure to be “illogical.” Instead, the Conservatives want to hand Enbridge Gas $250 million dollars for new natural gas connections in rural and indigenous communities, including this one.

Previous Liberal governments ditched coal and initiated the refurbishment of the Bruce nuclear power station (one of the largest in the world) and Darlington. More recently, the Ford government has decided to refurbish Pickering. Given the importance and scale of Ontario’s nuclear power, there was really no other choice.

More perplexing is Ontario’s decision to diversify into “small, modular” nuclear reactors. At 300MW (half the size of a CANDU), these are not so small and not particularly modular. The technology is basic, developed decades ago for submarines. Savings come from requiring fewer safety features. The reactors use enriched uranium and do nothing to address the growing problem of nuclear waste. An alternative would have been to diversify into advanced reactor designs. There is hope on that front; research teams around the world are developing new technologies. But, it is still in development, and unproven in terms of costs and benefits.

It is disconcerting, to say the least, that a major theme of this document is Ontario’s cozy relationship with its energy suppliers. Right now, the government is siding with Enbridge Gas in a dispute with its independent regulator, the Ontario Energy Board, which, for the first time ever, has declared installing more fossil fuel infrastructure to be “illogical.” Instead, the Conservatives want to hand Enbridge Gas $250 million dollars for new natural gas connections in rural and indigenous communities, including this one.

From the outset, the Ford government has ignored conservation, famously cancelling 750 green energy projects at the beginning of its first term in 2018. Its recent turn back to renewables is creating more questions than answers. Nowhere does “Powering our Growth,” for example, mention geothermal power. Geothermal uses the constant temperature of the earth’s subsurface to heat and cool buildings. It can be installed at multiple scales from single buildings to connected buildings to whole districts, even towns. Coupled with building improvements, geothermal heat pump technologies could save 15% of total electricity demand and reduce the need for new transmission lines.

Picton’s new hospital will incorporate geothermal technology to assist its heating and cooling systems. Geothermal tech should be incorporated into the proposed new long-term care facility and all new housing developments. Why doesn’t the government insist on it? Because it is promoting gas!

As for renewable energy and storage, “Powering our Growth” proposes seven new BESS (Battery Energy Storage System) by 2026, five of them in partnership with Indigenous communities. Some these are among the largest in Canada, including the 250MW BESS planned for Napanee. Yet the latest advances in battery technology favour smaller scales, which are the way of the future.

These should employ lithium iron phosphate LFP technology, not lithium-ion. LFP is the safer of the two and has become the standard for stationary energy storage. Zinc-based batteries are also ideal. These pose no fire hazards because they use an aqueous (water-based) solution as an electrolyte. Ontario should be testing such options rather than rushing into lithium.

The Minister of Energy needs to get Ontario’s energy plan focused on a climate-challenged future. Conservation and sustainability, not “powering growth,” need to be the focus.

For those who say Ontario is being well served, I beg to differ.

-Don Wilford, Special to the Gazette

                                                                   

This text is from the Volume 194 No. 8 edition of The Picton Gazette
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