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Ontario could be entering an energy supply crisis. Here’s what you need to know

As the province’s nuclear capacity dwindles, a lack of renewables is putting pressure on natural gas. But there are other options for a power grid that's anything but simple

Ontario’s power grid is the province’s pride and joy. 

It is among the cleanest in the world and the tool by which Ontario achieves all its climate goals. If your power is largely emissions free, everything you do with it is also counted as largely emissions free. 

But Ontario’s energy supply is about to become really, really complicated. The province’s thirst for clean energy to power a growing clean economy and electric transportation industry is quickly outpacing supply. By 2025, Ontario will be temporarily without a significant amount of its nuclear energy and so far plans to replace it with less clean, more controversial natural gas. Alternative energy sources and solutions are sparse. 

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The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.

Meanwhile, the climate emergency poses physical threats to the power grid too. In May, hundreds of thousands of Ontario residents were without power for days after a deadly derecho storm. Electricity distribution and transmission infrastructure was destroyed by hurricane-like winds, and scientists say this type of extreme weather event will become more frequent. 

The Ford government doesn’t have a plan for all this — yet. Until that happens, here’s what you need to know about Ontario’s power grid and the struggles ahead to keep it clean.

How is Ontario’s electricity system organized? 

Ontario’s power industry is complicated and layered. Generators like the Crown corporation Ontario Power Generation, which supplies 50 per cent of the province’s electricity, produce the power supply. Transmitters like Hydro One transport power to towns and cities across the province, while local distributors like Toronto Hydro and Hydro Ottawa ensure the power reaches households, schools and businesses. Meanwhile, the Independent Electricity Systems Operator monitors and balances the supply and demand of the entire system. 

The industry is regulated by the Ontario Energy Board, which is meant to ensure natural gas and electricity companies follow the rules and don’t abuse customers. 

Energy policy, though, is centrally planned and managed by the Ministry of Energy. 

How clean is Ontario’s power?

It’s pretty clean — 94 per cent to be exact, meaning only six per cent of our electricity supply emits carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. In total, electricity generation makes up less than three per cent of Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s largely because Ontario decided to eliminate coal-fired power plants, which in 2003 accounted for a quarter of generating capacity. It achieved this goal in 2014, making it the first jurisdiction in North America to do so. To date, this decision is lauded as the single largest emissions reduction measure across the world. 

Since 2005, emissions from electricity generation have plummeted by 90 per cent, equivalent to taking over 9.4 million cars in total off the road. 

As of March 2022, Ontario’s electricity supply mix was made up of 34 per cent nuclear, 28 per cent natural gas, 23 per cent hydro, 13 per cent wind, one per cent solar and less than one per cent biofuel — though not all used to their full capacity. For example, 60 per cent of Ontario’s energy comes from nuclear power. 

This interactive map from the Independent Electricity Systems Operator shows where these many sources of electricity are located across the province. 

Ontario’s Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, which provides 14 per cent of the province’s annual power, is being shut down permanently in 2025. It will create a strain on the province’s clean energy supply that needs to be addressed. Photo: Manu M Nair / Shutterstock

How thirsty is Ontario for clean electricity?

Very. 

According to the Independent Electricity Systems Operator’s 2021 outlook, “Ontario is entering a period of increasing electricity demand.” The operator’s forecasts show that electricity demand will grow an average of 1.7 per cent a year until 2042. A significant portion of this increased demand is coming from political and industrial commitments to electrify transportation, including transit and trucking. 

Major demand increases are also coming from the agriculture sector, driven by an expanding greenhouse industry, as well as steel and auto industries that are being urged to decarbonize their emissions-heavy operations.

We need a lot more supply if we want to be prepared for an emissions-free electric future. The operator found that energy shortfalls will begin as early as 2026 and grow substantially over the next 20 years if new non-emitting sources of electricity aren’t found. 

Why will demand for electricity outgrow Ontario’s supply?

Poor planning — and erasure of what clean energy plans did exist by Doug Ford’s government. 

The Independent Electricity Systems Operator projects that current electricity capacity can meet the province’s energy needs until the mid-2030s. But industry experts say that projection is generous and that it will change drastically. 

Ontario’s decarbonized grid relies largely on nuclear power, which for a long time provided an energy surplus. The problem is that the province’s three nuclear facilities are old and in need of some major TLC. The Bruce and Darlington nuclear generating stations are already in decade-long refurbishment processes that will hopefully allow them to keep operating for another 40 years, but mean they will operate at greatly reduced capacity until 2033. At least one component of the Darlington refurbishment was delayed and over budget, according to reporting by Global News. But Ontario Power Generation said the entire refurbishment remains on schedule to be completed by 2026 within its overall $12.8 billion budget.

Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, which provides 14 per cent of the province’s annual power supply, is being shut down permanently in 2025. 

This shortfall is not a surprise. The previous Liberal government tried to plan ahead by signing contracts with wind and solar energy companies. But when the Progressive Conservatives came to power, they cancelled 758 renewable energy contracts worth $231 million as well as a $100 million wind farm and many energy conservation schemes that could have reduced demand. 

Ontario also should have invested properly in energy storage technology, which is needed to make wind and solar power reliable no matter the weather.

We could have had more choices to fill this supply gap. Instead, we’re out of time. 

Ontario is is entering a period of increasing electricity demand due to pressures to electrify transportation and more. Photo: Nic Redhead / Flickr

How does Ontario plan on meeting increased electricity demand?

The easiest option available is to let the natural gas taps run.

The Independent Electricity Systems Operator is looking to boost natural gas supply in the short term. At the moment, Ontario’s natural gas plants operate 60 per cent of the time, but they will run at full capacity by 2033. 

Won’t increasing natural gas supply increase Ontario’s emissions?

Yup, and by an extremely concerning amount. 

The Independent Electricity Systems Operator projects that emissions from the grid will increase by 375 per cent by 2030 and by more than 600 per cent by 2040. This makes Ontario the only Canadian province “that seems to be planning on major increases in its electricity-related emissions,” according to an op-ed in the Hamilton Spectator last December by Mark Winfield, co-chair of York University’s Sustainable Energy Initiative, and Colleen Kaiser, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa. 

This solution is not without controversy. More than 30 Ontario municipalities that are home to 60 per cent of the provincial population have passed resolutions urging Queen’s Park to phase out natural gas plants in order to fight the climate crisis. 

Last year, Energy Minister Todd Smith asked the operator to study whether this phase-out was possible by 2030. 

The operator warned it wasn’t, and that such a rushed timeline would lead to blackouts and higher electricity bills. However, critics said the operator’s conclusion lacked cost-effective, climate-conscious alternative pathways. 

Can Ontario increase energy supply without increasing emissions?

According to the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, there are a number of things the province could try. These include banning gas-fired electricity exports to the United States. The group also suggested purchasing more solar and wind power and expanding transmission lines to Quebec in order to triple the purchase of its hydropower.

The alliance also thinks electric vehicle infrastructure should include bi-directional chargers, which would allow vehicles to be plugged in and used like generators on houses, including during blackouts. Electric vehicles are only as clean as their power source, but using their batteries to smooth out fluctuations on the grid could reduce the need to fire up gas plants when other, cleaner sources of energy are maxed out.

Multiple reports by independent energy associations and research associations have also urged the Ontario government to develop detailed, long-term power system plans that prioritize the need to decarbonize the grid. 

The energy industry seems to also be searching for innovative solutions. In March, the Ontario Energy Board and the Independent Electricity Systems Operator said they have committed $37 million to pilot projects that will help communities store and produce energy locally. 

During a 2022 election debate, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, said he “won’t be happy” until the province’s power grid is 100 per cent emissions free, without offering details on how that could happen. Photo: Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press

Why should I care about all this? 

Well, electricity prices are already rising because of the supply crunch, emissions from the grid are on the rise and Ontario doesn’t have a long-term plan to meet our energy needs. 

Despite the Progressive Conservatives’ mass shutdown of solar and wind projects, Ford confusingly said during last June’s election that he “won’t be happy” until the grid is 100 per cent emissions free. He’s likely to be sad for a long while then, as Ontario will have to first identify new sources of clean energy for our houses, businesses, schools, hospitals and vehicles, and then build or secure them. 

Meanwhile, the federal government is urging provinces to meet a new net-zero clean electricity standard by 2035 — a decision that will have a huge impact on the future of Ontario’s power generation.

If Ontario’s power grid is projected to become less clean, that will mean the emissions-reduction efforts of municipalities, residents, businesses and more won’t count as much towards our goals — or towards a healthier climate. What happens in the energy industry will impact all of us.

Updated July 22, 2022, at 4:28 p.m. ET: This article was updated to correct a sentence summarizing a 2017 report by Global News regarding the Darlington refurbishment. The Global News report stated that one component of the project was delayed and over budget, however the news report did not state that the entire project was delayed and over budget. The article was also updated to add an additional statement from Ontario Power Generation explaining that it says the overall project is on schedule to be completed by 2026 and that it would be within its $12.8 billion budget.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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We’re breaking news in Ontario
The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.
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The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.
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