Energy and the Ontario Election

Ontario is in yet another election season, and, like almost every Ontario election, energy is expected to be a key feature in all party platforms. 

Here at Pollution Probe we are non-partisan, and do not publicly endorse political parties. What we do endorse are policies that could help in the effective and equitable transition to a low-carbon energy system. To do that we need to go beyond the electoral politics, to explore the trends that will influence Ontario’s energy sector in the next decade regardless of who wins in June.

To start that discussion, Pollution Probe brought the following Ontario energy experts to a downtown Toronto pub to talk about the future of energy:

Sarah Ivy Simmons, Power Advisory LLC
Sarah Petrevan, Clean Energy Canada
Ron Dizy, Advanced Energy Centre, MaRS
Sean Conway, Ryerson University

Richard Carlson, from Pollution Probe, introduced and moderated the event.

Both the speakers and the audience shared their opinions and views as to what the future of energy in Ontario will bring. Here is what we heard.

Given the informal nature of the event we are not identifying speakers or attributing comments. As such this is more of a summary of what we at Pollution Probe got from the event, rather than a summary of what was said or positions of any of the speakers.

No Free Lunch

There are no zero-cost options when it comes to preparing for the future of energy in Ontario. Climate change, and the need to respond with both mitigation and adaptation, will not go away. It’s happening, and in fact we are already paying the cost of inaction on climate change.

As such we can’t do nothing. If we don’t start preparing and investing now, we will just have to do it later. And the longer we wait to start means that we will have to invest at a faster pace, which will cost us more. In addition, we will be covering the costs of adapting to the climatic changes that result from our inaction.

Rise of the Consumers

In the past, energy consumers have been seen as the passive recipients of energy at the end of the wire or pipe, where paying the bill was their only input into the sector.

New technology is now allowing some consumers to become more active, and many want to participate in the energy sector. Consumers can now generate their own energy through small-scale systems such as solar panels. They can use smart devices and thermostats to control their energy consumption. The increasing number of electric vehicles will affect the grid and could even be used for energy storage.

Technological advancement, the rapidly decreasing costs of alternatives and public interest in clean energy means that the rise of these active consumers is inevitable, but how their participation in the system will evolve is unclear. What is clear, however, is that consumers want the freedom to choose how they will participate (or not) and they do not want to be limited by what was done in the past.

Regional Developments

Ontario is a very large province, with significant regional differences. Effective energy decision-making in these regions will have to recognize their particular circumstances and specific needs.

Much of the economic growth in Ontario since the 2008 recession has, for example, been concentrated in two areas: the Greater Toronto Area and Ottawa. The increasing urban densification accompanying this growth affects the local energy system, and what Ontario’s future energy system will look like both inside and outside of these urban centres.

Communities and local energy utilities will need to respond to the transition in the energy sector and the need for climate change adaptation in different ways and at different times. What will work in Toronto is unlikely to work in Sioux Lookout, and vice versa. The good news here is that many communities in Ontario and across Canada are taking action. A number of Ontario communities have already committed to a net zero future. Others are looking into how they can become Smart Energy Communities. Pollution Probe and QUEST’s collaboration on the Smart Energy Scorecard will help them do that.

Uncertain Future

It has become a cliché to say that the energy sector is changing. The energy sector never stops changing. However, the rate of change is accelerating and given the technological, economic and policy changes happening in Canada and around the world, there is great uncertainty about what the future of energy will look like.

This uncertainty can be seen in the Independent Electricity System Operator’s electricity projections found in the Ontario government’s Long-Term Energy Plan. The projections have electricity demand in 2035 either slightly lower than now or increasing by nearly 50 per cent, a variation of 133 TWh at the lowest to 197 TWh at the highest, compared to 137 TWh in 2015. The difference in these projections is more than double the amount of electricity Toronto uses in a year.

Given the variability of current projections, we should acknowledge our uncertainty about how a low-carbon future will look. We should allow for policy flexibility and try many low-carbon technologies to see how we can reduce overall emissions from all areas of the energy sector.

Tyranny of the Absolute

As part of this flexibility, we should avoid the “tyranny of the absolute” when it comes to energy. For example, Ontario’s electricity generation is now over 95 per cent from non-emitting resources, a dramatic decline in greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade. Instead of trying to get rid of that last 5 per cent, which could be the most expensive and the hardest to reduce, we may consider focusing on other sectors where investment might yield an even greater reduction in GHG emissions. For example, other sectors that have significant room for progress include home heating and transportation.

Conclusion

Every large transition has winners and losers. Some will lead the change and others may struggle. It’s important to remember that energy is a key component of our economy and is crucial for the well-being of Ontarians. Therefore, we need to ensure that we end up with a lot of winners, and that consumers benefit from the transition.

Energy decisions have significant, long-standing impacts. Energy policy decisions affect the economy of Ontario, as well as all of Canada. On top of this, we need to reduce our emissions to mitigate climate change, and to prepare to adapt to changes we are already seeing.

Given the importance of energy, we need to go beyond the short-term partisan debates and talk about how we can better meet – and profit from — the changes that will shape our energy future in the next 5 to 10 years and beyond.

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