Let the Sun Shine on Ontario’s Electricity Bill

By Paul Gipe


An edited version of the article appeared in the August 11, 2004 edition of the Globe & Mail page A13. The Glob & Mail is one of two national English language newspapers in Canada. It is considered the “newspaper of record” in the country. This op-ed piece discusses changes in Ontario’s electricity supply system as a result of the 2003 blackout and the goverment’s plan to close province’s coal-fired power plants.

As the August anniversary of the Great Blackout nears, the temperature at Queen’s Park rises–both literally and figuratively.

Public hearings begin on the provincial government’s proposed remedy to last year’s calamitous power outage. Bill 100, the Electricity Restructuring Act of 2004, is, like the two faces of Janus, at once bold and timid.

Bill 100 boldly sets up a Conservation Bureau within a soon-to-be-created Ontario Power Authority. An emphasis on conservation is long overdue in a province where empty skyscrapers light the night sky, where cool air wafts out of the open windows of air-conditioned buildings, and compact fluorescents are as rare as ice in Nathan Phillips Square on Canada Day.

Yet when it comes to developing Ontario’s abundant renewable sources of energy, Bill 100 hesitates. It’s as though the authors don’t believe that renewables can make much of a difference. They want to be convinced.

Very well, then. Let’s give the people of Ontario the tools they need to get on with the job of building a more sustainable electricity system, and see how well they can do.

Bill 100 is a good start. It permits the new Power Authority to grant long-term contracts, an essential requirement for capital-intensive technologies such as renewable sources of energy. But the act never specifically endorses the kind of renewable energy tariffs that have led to a renewables boom in Europe.

Rather than the few large projects that will result from the province’s current approach using a cumbersome, complex, and costly bidding system, renewable tariffs would produce thousands of individual projects distributed across Ontario, enabling farmers, co-ops, and First Nations to significantly help meet Ontario’s need for power.

Take Germany, for example, a country about the size of southern Ontario. Since 1991 when it first launched its renewable energy tariffs, Germany has installed more than 14,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity. That’s more than forty times the amount operating in all of Canada and enough to produce 17 percent of Ontario’s electricity.

But that’s not all. Last year Germany installed more than 20,000 solar-electric systems, as well. German citizens invested $1.7 billion of their own money–almost twice as much as the province will spend repairing another unit at Pickering.

More than 45,000 people are now employed in the German wind industry, and another 10,000 work in the solar-electric sector. More than 300,000 Germans own shares of wind turbines.

It would be easy to dismiss renewable tariffs if they were successful only in Germany. That’s not the case, however. Renewable tariffs, or minimum price systems, have driven Spain to become a wind powerhouse in its own right, pushing it ahead of the mighty USA, once the world leader.

When Canada’s only wind turbine blade plant closed in Ontario this spring, one opened in Turkey, a country that will consider a renewable tariff this fall when the Turkish parliament returns from its summer recess.

Today nine countries in Europe and South America use renewable energy tariffs. At an international conference in Beijing this November, China is expected to announce that it will move forward with its own renewable tariff.

This fall Prince Edward Island’s parliament will consider Minister of Energy Jamie Ballem’s proposal to supply 100 percent of the province’s electricity with renewable energy. Ballem plans to meet that goal in part with a renewable tariff for community-owned wind turbines.

Ontario is a populous province replete with industrious and creative citizens. There’s no reason why Germany’s success can’t be replicated here. Ontario can serve as a model for the rest of North America, and especially for those states south of the border intent on burning more coal, the effluent of which drifts across the province, mingling with that of Ontario’s own plants.

Unfortunately, Bill 100 doesn’t treat electricity as anything other than a commodity, like tennis shoes or hot dogs. Yet electricity is a service essential to the security, safety, and health of Ontario’s people.

In Adam Beck’s day, electricity was an engine of economic development. It can be once again. Electricity generated by renewable sources of energy can both provide new manufacturing jobs and pump billions of private investment dollars into Ontario’s rural economy.

With the media warning of a coming shortage of oil and gas, we could be on the verge of massive renewable energy development. Ontario can lead, and reap the economic rewards of being first in North America to implement renewable energy tariffs, while it builds a cleaner, more sustainable, and more environmentally sound electricity system. Or, it can follow.

Trust the people of Ontario. Give them the tools they need to do their part in helping rebuild the province’s power system. Give them renewable tariffs with prices high enough and contracts long enough to make it pay for farmers, co-ops, and First Nations to do it.

Electricity is too important to be left to the few. Electricity benefits everyone, and everyone should have a part to play in its generation. Bill 100 should include renewable energy tariffs.

At the time of writing, Paul Gipe was the Acting Executive Director of the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association in Toronto Canada.