Backgrounder: fighting back against more fossil fuel power in Ontario

Part 1: What are the trends pushing more natural gas fired generation in Ontario?

Doug Ford’s government wants to expand gas-fired power generation in Ontario, at a time when much of the world is trying hard to wean itself off fossil fueled energy. Why?

That’s the question we’ll consider in this three-part blog post series.

The way the Ford government says it, the expanded gas-fired capacity is needed to meet the expected increase in demand for electricity, due partly to the growth of electric vehicles. There’s also a need to replace power lost to the refurbishment of the province’s nuclear power stations.

But the increase in gas fired generation in Ontario is part of a longer term trend that’s cause for concern. In 2017, gas- and oil-fired generation provided just four percent of Ontario’s electrical supply, according to the provincial agency that manages the provincial grid, the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO). But by 2022, that figure reached 10.4 percent.

The result is that Ontario’s power grid, made cleaner by the phase-out of the province’s coal fired power stations in 2014, is edging back towards greater use of fossil fuels.

One problem with that change is that large industrial customers are increasingly looking for electrical power from non-carbon-emitting sources. That’s partly because they’re under pressure from their shareholders, bankers and customers to be “green” – and their power source is a big part of that greenery. If Ontario increases the share of its power generated by natural gas, this will add an ugly shade of brown to the province’s grid – decreasing Ontario’s competitiveness as a place to do business.

It also means that the shift to EVs won’t have as much of a climate change benefit, given that some of the power flowing into those EV batteries is from fossil fuel generation.

It seems that in its stated objective of being carbon-neutral, the province is taking a step back (more fossil fuel generation) in hopes it will help in taking more steps forward (a carbon-neutral grid).

Why the push for increased use of natural gas?
Ontario’s electrical supply is still about 90% carbon-free, one of the cleanest grids in the world.

To understand what can be done to push Ontario out of the fossil fuel era, over the finish line into a grid that is carbon neutral, it helps to understand the present. Just over half – 54% -- of Ontario’s energy comes from nuclear power, with hydro-electric at about 26%. Wind has a 9% share, with solar and bioenergy each at less than one percent. But as we’ll see, that 10% share for gas-fired power plays an oversized share in keeping the province’s power grid steadily meeting demand.

And that’s easy for Ontarians to take for granted. Aside from winter storms, much of Ontario has become accustomed to reliable, always-on power. We read of rolling blackouts in countries such as Pakistan, India and South Africa, and believe it can’t happen here. But the IESO has raised the very real spectre of rolling power blackouts to conserve power, unless more capacity is built. Specifically, IESO says, gas-fired power.

So, the search is on for ways to keep Ontario’s grid reliable without a need for fossil fuels.

In the next post, we’ll look at how the electrical power generation capacity of Ontario is changing to meet changing demand.