A turbine in every yard

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Ontario's new Green Energy Act could take the province to the front of the green energy line, or become window dressing for more old-school centralized nuclear power plans.

Ever since Ontario committed to end its coal-fired dependence in 2003, two energy paradigms have been duking it out on an epic battleground littered with geeky graphs, warring calculations and out-of-sight European case studies. The next round will affect us all for generations to come, both through our pocketbooks and the environment.

First the great news.

The new act, announced by Energy Minister George Smitherman on Monday, February 23, marks a stunning victory for the idea of decentralized distributed energy production and the possibilities that efficiency can bring. It displays an admirable depth of thinking about eliminating obstacles currently in place and promotes many of the key practices needed to clear the way for clean energy.

Because of this, it's getting kudos everywhere from orgs as disparate as the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the David Suzuki Foundation.

It promises an attractive pricing system for renewable energy and the right of new energy projects to gain access to an updated "smart" two-way power grid.

Smitherman tells me in a phone conversation that in the next three years he anticipates "additional investment of at least $5 billion, a lot of that to be focused on transmission lines, and in cities working on distributed generation."

That means, he says, "creating the technical capacity for a lot of rooftops to be used for harvesting the sun for energy."

The act also promises streamlined approval processes for renewable energy projects. And it aims to incorporate serious energy efficiency into the Ontario Building Code, as well as setting even higher standards for government buildings, schools, hospitals, etc. It promises low-interest-rate loans to homeowners and businesses, with extra help for those with low incomes.

An example of the act's forward thinking is that it will mandate home energy audits prior to the sale of homes. "That's a great idea already being done in Europe," says Greenpeace's Shawn-Patrick Stensil.

"It's a way of actually putting energy efficiency into our culture, because when you buy a home, you tend to renovate right away. It's one of these small institutional changes that can have a big impact over time," Stensil says.

Smitherman proclaims he's going way past the U.S. on all this. "It's great to see Obama talking about green energy," he says, "but I think we got a bit of a jump start on quite a few U.S. jurisdictions; this is about maintaining our advantage."

But...

He's not just blowing his own horn. "The Green Energy Act is very exciting," says World Wildlife Fund's Keith Stewart. "I look at it as the electricity industry going through the same kind of changes that the computer industry went through in the '90s with the emergence of laptops and the Internet and all that stuff that switched from big centralized mainframes to decentralized computers, with people generating their own content. I think Smitherman has wrapped his brain around that."

Still, Stewart's got a warning. "We can only spend the dollars once. So we really have to choose where we spend them, and if the government sticks with their new renewables being only 8 per cent of supply in 2027, I'm less excited."

That's the bad news.

Almost all the details of the act are yet to come. It's great to have a price guarantee for renewables, but if it's the wrong price or the long-term plan limits potential growth, that will make all the difference between green and greenwash. This is what has the energy NGO community holding off on the big high-fives.

"The minister has all the right messages, but his plan is still committed to the same old centralized electricity system that was developed in the 1960s," says Stensil.

Over the next weeks and months, the particulars of the act will be delivered. But the most alarming sign remains Smitherman's continued commitment to refurbishing or building new nuclear power in the province as old reactors come to the end of their expensive and dangerous lives.

"Unfortunately, I can't promise the wind will blow or the sun always shine," says Smitherman, explaining why he is now reviewing plans to refurbish Pickering B. The final decision, he says, will likely be announced at the end of June.

Faulty thinking, says Pembina Institute's Cherise Burda. "Studies show the right mix of green energy can meet the same demand," she says. "There's wind and solar, storage technology, combined heat and power, recycled energy, conservation and efficiency -- a whole fleet of green options that when combined can create the type of baseload we need."

It creates a better system, she argues, because "you get a distributed, disbursed, flexible supply that means when one wind turbine goes down or one solar panel isn't functioning it's not going to affect entire communities."

And then, of course, there are all the other benefits of distributed energy, leading to way more jobs, way more opportunities for Ontarians throughout the province.

"Green energy is the fastest to deploy and costs the least. But nuclear is taking up 50 per cent of the electricity supply mix; that's the target for the long-term supply plan," she says. "And when you have that target on top of hydro and gas, it doesn't leave a lot of room for renewables and conservation."

As Stensil says, "The glass is already half full of nuclear, and you want to pour more in? It's just going to overflow, so there won't be space."

And, of course, all the big billions spent on new nuclear won't be available for green energy.
And that might just be our saving grace. "These nuclear projects are not going to be cheap or easy," says Stewart.

"I've talked to a lot of people in the government, and they're convinced that the new nuclear plants are going to be cheap, or that someone will buy them for the province, either the feds or the French government. When they go to sign on the dotted line and find that's not true, they might say, 'Well, maybe we should push the green stuff further.'"

We can only hope.

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