Ontario Premier Mike Harris is an ardent disciple of U.S. Vice-president Dick Cheney in supporting outdated energy policies and promoting non-renewable energy sources such as coal and nuclear power.
Harris has recently amazed critics by suggesting that new nuclear plants should be built in Ontario to meet American electricity demand. Meanwhile, he is ignoring simple policy measures that could reduce rates and level the playing field for renewable energy and efficiency measures.
Premier Harris suffers from a frightening case of historical amnesia. There has not been a nuclear plant ordered in Ontario since the Darlington station in 1973. The abysmal performance and long term shutdown in 1997 of eight of Ontario Hydros 20 reactors was an economic disaster unparalleled in the annals of the world nuclear industry. When Ontario Hydro was collapsed in 1999, the nuclear program was responsible for most of its staggering $38 billion debt.
Harris also promotes the restart of the eight old, dangerous nuclear reactors at Pickering A and Bruce A. The alleged rationale for delaying electricity sector competition yet again until May 2002, is to allow restart of the four old Pickering reactors. Never mind that these reactors were shut down in 1983 after a disastrous accident and rebuilt at a cost of $1 billion (more than their original cost). Never mind that they were shut down again because of poor performance and safety problems in 1997. Ontario Power Generation (OPG) has invested another $1.3 billion in rebuilding these nuclear lemons, and this is where Harris places his hopes for Ontarios electricity security. Historical amnesia indeed.
We were promised lower rates and environmental benefits from restructuring, but the Harris government has fumbled the ball. Rather than breaking up Ontario Hydro according to generating technology, Harris ignored the Macdonald committee and left the generating plants together. This allows OPG to subsidize its expensive nuclear power plants with Ontarios blue gold -- our 7,000 megawatts of hydro dams that are almost cost-free.
Even worse, the government relieved the two main Ontario Hydro successor companies of $21 billion of their $38 billion debt. This debt relief (known as stranded debt allocation) was effectively a subsidy for OPGs nuclear recovery program, and for Hydro Ones buying spree of municipal utilities to create a new retail monopoly. Harris has already backtracked on his promise of lower rates and warned that rates will increase. We received notice of the first 8 per cent increase in March. Why? OPG and Hydro One have driven up their debt, despite stranded debt relief.
Environmentally, competition threatens to maintain the worst of all worlds: dirty coal plants belching poison, and expensive, dangerous nuclear plants that have now piled up over 25,000 tonnes of hazardous high level radioactive waste with no permanent management solution. The multi-billion-dollar expense of OPGs nuclear recovery program precludes a large-scale green energy program or conversion of coal plants to natural gas. And the Harris government has done absolutely nothing to encourage renewable energy or conservation.
In their Green Report Card on Electricity Restructuring, the Sierra Club of Canada and the Toronto Environmental Alliance identified some simple policies that could salvage this desperate situation. First, eliminate the deadly emissions from OPGs coal generating stations that are causing 1,900 deaths a year. Renewable forms of energy, efficiency programs, and natural gas can replace coal. Second, establish a phaseout timetable for Ontarios aging reactors, and implement a full provincial environmental assessment on the proposed restart of two old Bruce A reactors by Bruce Power.
Finally, Ontario must encourage green energy and efficiency policies, including quotas for renewable energy (known as a Renewable Portfolio Standard), and funding for conservation (known as a System Benefits Charge). Variations of these policies have already been established in 15 states in the U.S. The Ontario Energy Board (OEB) should require electricity distributors to carry out conservation programs, as for gas utilities. The OEB should also credit local (embedded) green generators with the full value of avoided transmission costs (whether used on site or in the local area), and the purchase of green power should be allowed by local utilities. We also need good electricity labelling on bills to show the electricity source and the pollutants (from both fossil and nuclear plants), so that consumers can choose green energy.
The electricity future in Ontario is already looking too much like the past. The point of restructuring was not to continue the status quo. Green energy must be encouraged, and controls must be put on competition to make it work for the environment and the people of Ontario.
David Martin is a Policy Consultant for the Sierra Club of Canada Nuclear Campaign