02 Apr 2013: Report

How Ontario Is Putting an End
To Coal-Burning Power Plants

Ontario is on the verge of becoming the first industrial region in North America to eliminate all coal-fired electrical generation. Here’s how Canada’s most populous province did it — and what the U.S. and others can learn from it.

by keith schneider

By most measures of environmental policy and progress, Ontario, Canada ranks well. Over the last half-century, Canada’s most populous province required cities and industries to treat every gallon of wastewater, dramatically reduced the level of sulfur and other pollutants that caused acid rain, and convinced the big and politically powerful pulp and paper industry to install state-of-the-art emissions control equipment.

Next year, though, Ontario is scheduled to complete a 21st century environmental cleanup project that distinguishes it among North American jurisdictions. After a decade of work by the Liberal Party government, Ontario at the end of this year is scheduled to close the last of its big coal-fired generators, and leave a single small coal-fired unit available during periods of peak electrical demand until it closes next year. In shutting down the province’s 19 boilers fueled by coal, Ontario will become the first industrial region on the continent to eliminate coal-fired generation.

The decade-long process to replace a quarter of the province’s electrical generating capacity with new plants fueled by natural gas and renewable energy sources represents one of the most ambitious low-carbon generating strategies in the world. And achieving the coal-less electricity sector has yielded lessons about the constraints of government policy and public acceptance in an industrial democracy seeking to make such a momentous transition.

Lambton Power Plant

Toban Black via Flickr
The last unit at Ontario's Lambton plant will be shut down this year.
“What Ontario has done is impressive,” said Tim Weis, the director of renewable energy policy at the Pembina Institute, one of Canada’s most respected environmental research organizations. “But it’s also caused a lot of resistance... The government overcame the struggles to some extent. It does illustrate what is possible, and what to anticipate in terms of getting off of coal.”

Weaning economies off of coal, as Ontario learned, is no small feat. In 2003, Ontario generated 7,500 megawatts of coal-fired electricity, a quarter of its power supply. Ontario’s coal consumption peaked that year at 18.6 million metric tons. Coal-fired power plants were Ontario’s largest source of toxic chemical, heavy metal, sulfur, and nitrogen air pollution. Carbon emissions from coal-fired generation had risen to more than 41 million metric tons annually.

The program to end coal began that same year with an exceptional debate about energy that helped decide the election for provincial premier. Liberal candidate Dalton McGuinty and Conservative incumbent Premier Ernie Eves challenged each other on how quickly to shut coal-fired plants.

Smog, dust, and mercury emissions worried Eves, who said he could do it by 2015. McGuinty shot back that he could push Ontario out of the coal-generated electricity business by 2007, a message of energy conservation and efficiency that helped propel him to victory. McGuinty served for more than nine years as Ontario’s premier before stepping down in February.

Soon after McGuinty’s election in 2003, the provincial government began the process of closing coal plants.

In 2005, the 1,130-megawatt Lakeview coal-fired plant in Toronto, one of the province’s oldest, was shut down. In 2009, four generating units at a plant in Nanticoke and two units at another plant in Lambton were shut. A year later, two more units at Nanticoke were closed. Last year a small plant in Atikokan closed.

This year the last generating units in Nanticoke and Lambton close, and the Atikokan station is being converted to burn wood pellets. Coal
Hundreds of windmills were built on farmland along the corridor from Windsor to Toronto.
consumption, coal-fired generating capacity, and emissions of mercury, other toxic compounds, and carbon dioxide from coal-fired plants will fall to near zero, according to the Ontario Environment Ministry.

The final two coal-fired generators, at a 300-megawatt plant in Thunder Bay, will close next year, according to Neal Kelly, the spokesman for Ontario Power Generation, the provincial utility.

“The 2007 deadline was ambitious,” said Garry McKeever, director of energy supply in the Ontario Ministry of Energy. “When the new government got into office it ran up against the mechanics of how to get this done. Communities worried about job losses. Industries worried about having enough power. It takes time to build replacement generation.”

According to the Ministry of the Environment, from 2000 to 2010, air quality improved province-wide in Ontario, and the phasing out of coal plants was a key reason. Ontario also implemented programs to reduce emissions from smelting plants and reduce particulates and toxic air contaminants from the transport sector. Overall, mean particulate concentrations in the province’s air fell from 8.1 micrograms per cubic meter in 2003 to 4.8 micrograms per cubic meter in 2010, a 40 percent decline.

The economic effects of the coal plant closures varied from town to town. For instance a coal-fired plant in Sarnia, an industrial city in southern Ontario along the border with Michigan, was to be replaced by a new natural-gas-fired plant now under construction. And Ontario Power Generation responded to its own staff resistance by promising severance payments, or jobs in the utility’s 65 hydro and three big nuclear plants for workers willing to transfer.

The transition away from coal also was helped by political and economic circumstances. Unlike the U.S., where miners, producers, truckers, railroads, and utilities form strong regional coal alliances, coal-fired power in Ontario had no other influential political constituencies.

Most of the coal-fired generators were also closed as the U.S. economic meltdown engulfed Ontario’s auto manufacturing sector, North America’s
‘I’ve encouraged Americans to look across the border and learn something,’ says an energy analyst.
largest producer of vehicles and parts, and one of Ontario’s biggest power consumers. The demand for electricity fell in Ontario, a market that was producing over 35,000 megawatts of generating capacity. Ontario’s three big nuclear plants alone produce almost 13,000 megawatts of generating capacity and 56 percent of the province’s electrical power. Hydropower generates almost 8,000 megawatts of capacity and 22 percent of the electricity.

The province’s ample electricity supply, and the closing of coal-fired generators, carved political space for Premier McGuinty and his staff to propose generating new jobs in energy innovation and manufacturing with homegrown renewable technology. In 2009, the province enacted the Green Energy Act to promote renewable sources. It included feed-in tariff provisions, modeled after similar programs in Denmark and Germany, which offered 20-year contracts to purchase wind, solar, biomass and biogas-fueled electricity from producers at generous prices.

The new statute and its revenue provisions spurred a rush of big wind farms. Hundreds of windmills, for instance, were built on farmland along the highway corridor from Windsor to Toronto. Wind generating capacity now measures 2,000 megawatts. That will double in the next 18 months, according to the Energy Ministry, which would mean wind would produce more than 10 percent of the total generating capacity of 36,000 megawatts. The provincial government estimates that 30,000 jobs are connected to the Ontario Green Energy Act and the manufacturing and installation of wind parks.

“It’s a good story to tell and a lot of people haven’t heard it,” said Paul Gipe, an energy industry analyst from California who worked with Ontario citizen groups to replace coal with renewable energy. “I’ve encouraged Americans to look across the border and learn something.”

Ontario’s transition to cleaner energy sources, particularly in the electrical sector, reflects a trend unfolding with gathering momentum in many industrialized nations.

Electricity generated from renewable energy sources contributed almost one fifth — 19.9 percent — of the European Union’s electricity in 2010, according to commission statistics. From 2000 to 2010, the number of gigawatts of electricity generated from biomass in EU nations more than tripled. During the same decade, the number of gigs generated by wind turbines increased almost seven-fold. A gigawatt is 1 billion watts.

The U.S. also appears to be steadily moving away from coal and toward cleaner fuels.

As recently as 2007, the Energy Information Administration (EIA), a research unit of the U.S. Department of Energy, projected that the fuel mix
Citizen opposition forced the cancellation of gas-fired plants in two suburbs of Toronto.
for producing electricity in the U.S. would persist largely unchanged through 2035. According to that estimate, a little more than half of the country’s electricity would come from coal, about 20 percent from nuclear plants, and a little less than 20 percent from natural gas; the balance, roughly 12 percent, would be generated from wind, solar, biomass, and hydropower.

A lot changed over the last five years. In 2012, according to the EIA, U.S. utilities burned 815 million tons of coal for electricity, down from over 1 billion tons in 2005, and the lowest utility coal consumption since 1990. Less than 38 percent of the country’s electricity last year came from coal. As recently as 2009 it was 53 percent. In its most recent assessment, the EIA projects that 49,000 megawatts of coal-fired power — equal to 50 big plants, and 15 percent of existing coal-fired capacity in 2012 — will be retired over the next seven years.

Replacing coal is a surge of plants fueled by natural gas and wind. Last year, gas supplied 29.9 percent of U.S. electricity, up from 23 percent in 2009. And in 2012, with 13.2 gigawatts installed nationally (equivalent to 13 big coal-fired plants), wind energy accounted for 42 percent of the nation’s new electrical generating capacity, more than coal and natural gas combined. Texas, of all places, generates 9.2 percent of its electricity with 12,200 megawatts of installed wind capacity.

In Ontario, 17 new natural gas-fired generating stations have been built and, with 10,000 megawatts of capacity, have replaced the generating capacity that came from coal. Both gas and wind, though, have prompted civic dissent. Citizen opposition forced the cancellation of gas-fired plants in Oakville and Mississauga, two suburbs of Toronto. And wind farms have attracted opposition in rural areas.

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The discord over wind, said Tom Adams, an energy consultant in Toronto and author of Tomadamsenergy.com, a blog, is driven in part by a provision in the 2009 Green Energy Act that removed the authority of local governments to review and approve land use permits for wind projects. “People began to feel like their rights were taken away,” said Adams.

Opposition groups formed to stop projects. Ontario issued a formal moratorium for offshore wind development in Lake Ontario. Citizen groups filed lawsuits to halt projects, many of them motivated by fears that projects would reduce property values.

Wind energy development is also being blamed for rising electricity prices in Ontario. But Gipe, the industry analyst, responds that wind development — which accounted for less than 4 percent of all electricity generated last year — isn’t big enough to dramatically affect power prices.

Other factors also are in play, said McKeever of the Energy Ministry, including the cost of expanding and modernizing the province’s transmission grid and refurbishing the province’s big nuclear generating sector.

“The current Liberal government has heard the opposition,” said McKeever, “and is working to address the concerns of municipalities, and restoring some of those authorities. It’s been a learning process for this government.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the amount of wind energy generating capacity installed in 2012; the correct amount was 13.2 gigawatts. In addition, this article originally stated that Texas generated 20 percent of its energy from wind power in 2012; In fact, wind power generated 9.2 percent of the state’s energy in 2012.

POSTED ON 02 Apr 2013 IN Business & Innovation Business & Innovation Climate Energy Energy Oceans Policy & Politics North America North America 

COMMENTS


Quebec has been coal free for a very long time. While Ontario's move away from coal is indeed quite a feat, the idea that it's the the first jurisdiction in North America to eliminate coal in electricity generation is not quite true. It is in fact the first jurisdiction once heavily dependent on coal to eliminate coal.

Posted by Eric Francoeur on 02 Apr 2013


I see that Ontario still considers biomass as renewable energy- whereas, Massachusetts does not, following their funding of the infamous Manomet Report. Glad to see the rest of the world isn't following Massachusetts with that faulty report. Wood is not a fossil fuel. Even James Hansen supports biomass for energy.

Posted by Joe Zorzin on 03 Apr 2013


What is true is that Ontario is the first industrialized region on the continent to phase out coal-fired power, which is what Yale e360 reported.

Posted by Keith Schneider on 03 Apr 2013


Texas generation from wind is presently 9.2 percent, not 20 percent, as the article states. See
http://www.ercot.com/news/press_releases/show/26398

Posted by Armond Cohen on 04 Apr 2013


I see the comment: "fueled by natural gas and renewable energy sources represents one of the most ambitious low-carbon generating strategies in the world" while they are pushing very hard to send their coal tar deposits and the high polluting gases to the U.S.

Posted by Dana Ridgley on 05 Apr 2013


Earth is past the point where emission reductions can stop Abrupt Climate Change from sliding into full blown runaway global warming. As explained in detail at Arctic News blog. Carbon, weight 12, in molecules of greenhouse gas has different force depending on molecule type.

Carbon in methane gas, the prime ingredient in "natural gas", typically 85 percent holds much more force by weight to heat Earth to oblivion.. Carbon in Carbon dioxide is basis of measurement of force of greenhouse gas. Carbon Dioxide is global warming potential of one while Methane is global warming potential approx 105 times that at 20 years from release, all things considered typical.

Trillions of tons of methane are engaged in rising to 30 to 47 kilometers altitude from Methane hydrate ice which is decaying in Arctic Sea floor.

Posted by Dale Lanan on 08 Apr 2013


Note that British Columbia is coal-free too: 90 percent hydro with the remainder coming from gas: http://www.bchydro.com/energy-in-bc/our_system/generation.html

The lede paragraph is certainly open to misinterpretation. Whilst it may be technically accurate, I suspect that most readers will interpret it as saying that every other region in North America uses coal-power - which is definitely not the case.

Posted by Jon Jennings on 09 Apr 2013


This is a spectacularly one-sided article. I am a scientist in the renewables field and I'm a strong supporter of green energy. But it's common knowledge on the other side of the 49th parallel that the Ontario strategy is a spectacular failure. The only reason Ontario has wind is because of strong feed-in tariffs that cost Ontario taxpayers dearly.

The National Post is reporting today on a study that shows 80 percent of Ontario's wind generation is completely surplus to demand and exported at a tremendous loss, estimated at nearly $2 billion cumulative so far. It's surplus because the wind doesn't blow at the right time and in the right season to make a difference. It's not a good story for the people of Ontario to use huge subsidies, funded by taxpayers and consumers, to generate cheap power for export to the USA.

Keith, you interviewed me once for a piece you wrote for the New York Times. I know you're talented and the present piece is very well written. But it's spectacularly one-sided. Of course every region can go coal free if they want to bear the cost of doing so. Ontario is in an economic free-fall in a large part because of the massive subsidy needed to cause the change. It's also helped that the recession that hit manufacturing so hard in Ontario (and Michigan where I live) has reduced demand so that coal can be retired (or not built as planned back in the early part of the 2000s).

Why do you so completely ignore the economic cost? Sustainability means environmental AND social AND economic, not just environmental.

Posted by Robert Froese on 11 Apr 2013


This is not a simple topic. As long as the consumer is happy with the cost of power without coal, this is a choice a community made. However, natural gas and wind power generated electricity is more expensive than coal fired electricity. Solving the emissions issues related to coal generation is the issue, most coal plants in this discussion were constructed prior to 1975, prior to 1965 in most cases, and they are just not easily retrofitted to be clean by today's standards. Natural gas prices fluctuate, and when they climb back up, the cry for less expensive energy will be an issue to be addressed. Then maybe the door opens for newer technology that can cleanly combust coal as a fuel without the environmental impacts of todays facilities.

Posted by Anthony Arand on 11 Apr 2013


Overall, mean particulate concentrations in the province’s air fell from 8.1 micrograms per cubic meter in 2003 to 4.8 micrograms per cubic meter in 2010, a 40 percent decline.

The transition away from coal also was helped by political and economic circumstances. Unlike the U.S., where miners, producers, truckers, railroads, and utilities form strong regional coal alliances, coal-fired power in Ontario had no other influential political constituencies.

Most of the coal-fired generators were also closed as the US economic meltdown engulfed Ontario’s auto manufacturing sector, North America’s largest producer of vehicles and parts, and one of Ontario’s biggest power consumers.

see unn.edu.ng

Posted by oblak on 30 Apr 2013


Anyone interested in this issue should take a look at an article by Gwyn Morgan "Ontario's power policies show what not to do". A few quotes:

"A report last spring by the conservative Fraser Institute think tank estimated the green subsidies would add almost $6 billion to household electricity costs and $12 billion to business and industrial costs, transforming Ontario's previous low-cost electricity economic advantage into a crushing competitive millstone.

The report calculated that Ontario's manufacturing and mining sectors would be particularly hard hit, driving down manufacturing investment returns by 29 per cent and mining returns by 13 per cent. But almost all businesses will feel the pain and job losses will be severe"

"Taken together, the green energy subsidies will add some $18 billion to Ontario power rates, more than 30 times the $585 million cost of power plant cancellations."

To add insult to injury, wind and solar are intermittant and so they do not create base load power. Therefore, a conventional power plant must also be built. How can doubling the capital infrastructure possibly be cost effective? Oh, it's isn't. It's just horribly expensive. Who knew.

What is amazing is that we have wind energy promoters who are still making fanciful claims about green jobs when regular jobs are being lost in the manufacturing and mining sectors.

Posted by Sophie Cheney on 19 Aug 2013


Is there any benefit from burning wood pellets? Trees are just as much a store of carbon as fossil fuels. There is no way that the trees will grow back at the same pace as the thousands of acres are cleared to feed a power plant. Wood ash is not totally benign, and it would be useful to know what is in the emissions.
Posted by Alan Smith on 24 Sep 2013


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keith schneiderABOUT THE AUTHOR
Keith Schneider is senior editor of Circle of Blue. He is a former national correspondent and regular contributor to the New York Times. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about an increase in the development of unconventional sources of oil across the western U.S. and Canada and about how a fossil fuel boom could slow the development of clean energy.
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