Saturday, February 24, 2024

An Ill Wind

By Shane Jolley, Guest Columnist

Only a government could take something as pure and simple as wind and make it more despised than a snowstorm in July.

 

I follow the continued debate about wind power in Ontario with dismay, as both proponents and opponents distort the facts to fortify their positions. To some, the image of a wind turbine is the very symbol of a clean energy future. To others it is the symbol of corporate imperialism; the extraction of resources and profit without compensation.

 

The issue has pitted neighbour against neighbour in communities across Grey and Bruce Counties. At the core of it is the McGuinty government’s disrespect for the decision making authority of rural municipalities, informed by local citizens.

In an attempt to push back against the heavy hand of provincial government policy, many faulty claims are trotted out as fact. Take the economic argument for example. Opponents point to the subsidies offered through the Feed-in Tariff and MicroFit programs as evidence that wind power is uneconomical, without pointing out that all forms of power generation in Ontario are heavily subsidized. In 2010, the Ontario Power Authority paid out $269 million in subsidies to all renewable sources of energy, which amounts to about 0.2 cents of the average 13 cents per kilowatt hour  on the typical electricity bill.

 

The subsidy numbers on nuclear power are much more difficult to obtain. The costs of construction, operation, decommissioning, waste storage, the “external” costs of dirty uranium mining, etc have not been calculated into the price per kWh, but there is one number we know for sure. In 2010 the Ontario Power Authority (by way of you, the taxpayer) payed out $1.35 billion – 5 times the renewable subsidy – to meet nuclear and gas purchase agreements. Those purchase agreements are contracts to buy excess power that cannot be used due to the limitations of our ageing power grid.

 

Yes, that is $1.35 billion for power that was never used. In one year.

 

Now before all the wind farm proponents reading this get all giddy with excitement and self-righteous glee, I should mention that $269 million is still a mighty large wad of cash if it’s going to the wrong place. You see, the question is not whether to subsidize or not subsidize. Unless power users want to pay at least double the current rate, subsidies are here to stay. The question at hand is who benefits from the monies payed out?

 

This is where the McGuinty government blew it on an epic scale. Someone thought Ontarians would be fine with funnelling huge gobs of taxpayer money to multinational corporations like Samsung in Korea with no say in the matter.

 

Rather than beating this dead horse any further, how do we move forward from here?

 

Sensible energy policy in Ontario requires addressing three key issues. Ownership, decentralization, and conservation.

 

The conservation argument is so obvious that I can’t for the life of me figure out why we’re still not getting serious about it. 16 to 20 cents spent on conservation and efficiency programs achieves the same benefit  as a whole dollar spent on development of new sources of generation. One cannot help wonder who the Ontario Power Authority is really working for when they continue to put the interests of power corporations ahead of the interests of the Ontario taxpayer.

 

The second key ingredient in creating a more sensible energy policy for Ontario involves the further decentralization of power production in the province. Our current system relies upon large centralized power infrastructure – nuclear plants, coal plants and wind farms – sending power to large centralized transfer stations. In our case, the power gets sent all the way to Milton before it is redistributed back out onto the grid. There are two major problems with this system. First, a whopping 20 percent of the power generated in Ontario is lost in transmission. It disappears into thin air never to be used. This is astonishing waste. The second problem is that transmission capacity is often reserved for large power plants, preventing small energy producers from even accessing the grid.

 

The solution is restructuring the Ontario grid to a “smart grid”. A smart grid sends the power as it is produced to the closest point of use, then distributes the remainder to next point of use and so on. The redevelopment of the grid could be financed almost entirely from elimination of line loss, and it would open up opportunities for every home, farm, and business to become power producers. They would profit from a more stable, clean power supply  and renewable subsidies would be channelled back  to Ontario taxpayers rather than to multinational corporations.

 

The third component in a sensible energy policy involves more local ownership of power infrastructure. Rather than large-scale wind farms owned by foreign corporations, imposed against the will of the community, we need both the ownership and the profits of wind and other power projects under local control. This can take the form of community energy co-ops, small-scale private projects, or municipally owned power production. All would include meaningful input from the community and shared benefits. It is clear from other jurisdictions around the world that when the community has a direct stake in the success of an energy project, it encounters little opposition.

 

The direct benefits can be in the form of municipal revenues from energy sales, reduced energy costs from preferential municipal pricing, or direct profits to local owners; all of which get recycled into the local economy.

 

Conservation, decentralization and local ownership. The ingredients are there, now we need a provincial leader with the vision to put the long-term interests of taxpayers ahead of short-term political gain.

 

Shane Jolley is the coordinator of The LocalMotive Project in Grey & Bruce Counties.

 

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