Published On Sun Oct 10 2010
Oakville residents were understandably jubilant when the province reversed itself Thursday and cancelled construction of a $1.2 billion gas-fired power plant in their community. On their way to victory, they had deployed petitions, mass demonstrations, sympathetic celebrities (including a paid appearance by environmental crusader Erin Brockovich), YouTube videos, and a platoon of local politicians. They scored a landmark win, but it will energize opposition to other vital power projects.
Whether or not one accepts the official explanation that the plant is no longer required, the deal to build this 900-megawatt generating station, and its subsequent cancellation, reveals a fundamental flaw in Ontario’s electricity planning process.
Ensuring there is an adequate supply of electricity in the future is the responsibility of the Ontario Power Authority (OPA), a government agency. Until last week, the OPA’s position was that a gas-fired power plant was sorely needed in the southwestern GTA due to heavy local electricity demand and the closing of a 1,140-megawatt coal-fired station in Mississauga.
As recently as March, Colin Andersen, the OPA’s CEO, wrote an article for a Toronto newspaper stating: “It would not be responsible to build a plant elsewhere and deliver its power to the Southwest GTA.” He explained that using another location would require new high-voltage transmission lines affecting many other communities and costing Ontarians hundreds of millions of dollars.
In an interview last week, Andersen said circumstances had changed and an Oakville plant is no longer the best option. But he was unable to point to any single report that prompted the change of plans. Rather, he said the reversal came gradually, thorough an ongoing process of analysis and planning. Pity it didn’t dawn earlier, before September 2009, when the Ontario Power Authority announced it was awarding a contract to build and run the Oakville plant to TransCanada Corporation. Now, barely a year later, the Calgary company is preparing to discuss what “reasonable payments” it might receive as compensation for the broken contract
The size of that compensation is now in the hands of lawyers; it is expected to be many millions. But it is no mystery who will pay — Ontario’s already-burdened energy consumers.
One of two things went wrong here: either the experts at the OPA badly misjudged the need for a huge new generating plant, or they were overruled for political reasons because Premier Dalton McGuinty was worried about losing the Oakville, currently held by Liberal MPP Kevin Flynn. Neither option inspires confidence in Ontario’s energy future.
Furthermore, with its U-turn the McGuinty government has bought itself future grief, for the tactics and strategies used in Oakville will likely be adopted by King Township residents fighting a gas-fired plant in their area, by people across the province fighting the installation of wind turbines, and, indeed, by any group fighting an unwanted public facility in its backyard.