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GreenView: One thing you should know about Ontario’s energy plan

Krystyn Tully, Weekly

Ahh, fall. The flip-flops go away for another year and we return to work or school with one more summer behind us.

If you work on environmental policy for government or for a non-profit (and if you’re reading this, you probably do), then the big issue this fall is energy. You can’t turn on the news, pick up a paper, or glance at a social media stream right now without hearing about energy: pipelines, nuclear power plant leaks, wind farm controversies. And planning. Always planning.

Right now, the Province of Ontario is reviewing its “long-term energy plan”. A month-long public comment period lasts until September 16th.

The most important thing that you need to know about Ontario’s long-term energy plan is this: there is no long term energy plan for Ontario.

We have a document with the word “plan” on the cover. It predicts how much power Ontarians will demand in the future. It estimates how much of that demand can be met by conserving power and how much must be generated through nuclear, hydro-electric, coal, wind and other forms of power generation. It is entirely a political document. And it is not a real plan.

Without a crystal ball, energy planning is possibly the most difficult of all public policy puzzles. How much energy will we need in the future? Will the economy be stronger? Weaker? Will new technologies appear that increase demand? Reduce demand? Will populations increase by a lot? A little bit? Every plan is based on estimates, guesses, and full of possible mistakes.

And yet, we have to try to do the impossible. Energy operations take decades to build and can cost billions of dollars. They require years of advanced planning to ensure Ontario never runs out of power or creates uncertainty for residents and business.

But if we push forward rashly – as we are doing right now – the risks are just as severe. Lack of foresight in the last century has forever altered our lakes, and yet Ontario shows little sign of learning. We stand poised to make many of the same mistakes. Nuclear power plants kill billions of fish, eggs, and larvae, yet Ontario intends to build more with the same outdated cooling water technology. Large-scale hydro-generating stations virtually wiped out fish populations and commercial fisheries over the course of the last generation, but new projects take little to no measures to protect the fish that remain. The fact that 8,000 dams restrict access to more than 12,000 square kilometres of freshwater habitat for the American eel, for example, should influence Ontario energy policy. It doesn’t.

Similarly, communities are being divided by energy projects. Pipelines, wind, and other energy controversies are pitting Ontarians against each other. The province’s green energy strategy is meeting with fierce opposition – not because green energy is a bad idea, but because communities want to be consulted and the only avenues they have left are political action and courtrooms. Similarly, nuclear projects that were pushed swiftly through inadequate federal review processes are now subject to court challenges. When an Oakville gas plant was cancelled for seemingly political motives, it became a major issue for the Ontario legislature. Ontario’s haste is actually slowing progress down.

This is why Lake Ontario Waterkeeper has been recommending that Ontario de-politicize energy planning since at least 2006. We aren’t changing our tune in 2013. When we submit our comment on Ontario’s long-term energy “plan” later this month, we will highlight the serious environmental impacts of big energy projects. And we’ll reiterate our position that the only way to develop a viable energy plan is through a transparent, independent, non-political process.

The benefit of developing a thoughtful energy plan with input from academia, business, nonprofit organizations and the public at large should not be underestimated. It’s been 20 years since Ontario held a real hearing on energy policy, and the current plan barely differs from the ideas and approaches employed back then. Meanwhile, the world around us has changed dramatically. Trends in computing, decentralization, the economy, and overall approaches to markets and production should radically influence energy policy. A 21st Century energy plan should bear little resemblance to a 20th Century energy plan.

If we had an opportunity to really, truly come together to look at Ontario’s energy future, then we could innovate. We could do something exciting. We could make a real plan.

Summer’s over. Let’s get to work.