Sunday, September 18, 2016

Ontario takes a wrong turn on electricity prices

After a couple of weeks away, exploring the wilds of the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, I came back to the unedifying (but perhaps not unexpected) spectacle of the Ontario Liberal Party digging themselves into a bigger and bigger hole.
The Liberals and Premier Wynne (of whom, I have to say, I once entertained great hopes and expectations) have been manifestly floundering in recent months, and integrity and principles have been giving way to political expediency and an apparent preoccupation with the next election (still a couple of years away).
A prime example of this is the recent announcement of a subsidy for electricity prices, an across-the-board and completely unjustifiable measure expected to cost the province over $1 billion. After a few years of good strong leadership on renewable electricity generation and climate change initiatives under ex-Premier Dalton McGuinty (in spite of all the bad press attributed to it), Kathleen Wynne has shown herself to be wishy-washy and equivocal on the energy file. Electricity prices, much more than the price of gas, water, or anything else, has for some reason always been an explosive and highly politicized issue in Ontario, and the Liberals have obviously latched onto it as a means of vote-earning (or at least of damage limitation).
An article by Mike Schreiner, leader of the Ontario Green Party, reported on Huffington Post, does a good job of critiquing this unabashedly political move. As Schreiner points out, the subsidy will be paid out of provincial coffers anyway, and so we will merely be paying it out of our taxes rather than through our electricity bills, with no net savings at all. Worse, it is also a regressive subsidy in that richer people with bigger houses and more profligate electricity usage will benefit the most, while poorer and more energy-responsible households will benefit the least.
Furthermore, it does does nothing to address the base systemic causes of our high electricity prices. Schreiner points out that Ontario currently produces more electricity than it needs, largely as a result of a continued over-reliance on base-load nuclear energy, the excess capacity ending up being sold at a loss. In addition, rolled-over debts from decades of Ontario's nuclear program are responsible for the so-called "debt retirement charge" that appears on our electricity bills each month.
Instead of the Liberals' subsidy, Schreiner suggests an immediate moratorium on new electricity mega-projects, including the billions of dollars that the province inexplicably wants to spend on already-outdated nuclear plants like those at Pickering, which would only serve to increase the surplus electricity we produce.
Secondly, halt the fire-sale of the provincially-owned Energy One utility for short-term financial gain. In the longer term, such a sale will cost the province millions of dollars, and in the process lead to poor energy policy decisions for decades to come.
Thirdly, invest some (or all) of those billions currently earmarked for nuclear plant repairs into energy conservation measures, which, dollar for dollar, still give by far the best bang for the buck. This can be combined with further off-peak pricing breaks, using the existing smart-meter system, to reduce maximum load requirements still further.
And finally, if new generation capacity is needed, build new transmission lines to Quebec, which has an excess of clean hydro power which it is currently exporting to the USA, a solution far less expensive than building or rebuilding nuclear plants.
Good, clear, sensible advice from the Green Party, that the Liberals would do well to heed. But don't hold your breath.

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