Clean Energy in Ontario: Current Reality, Goals & The Future of Electricity

As the Ontario government appoints its last and remaining members to the Electrification and Energy Transition Panel, it’s a great time to discuss Ontario’s achievements, goals, and future to ensure residents and businesses have access to a reliable, affordable clean energy supply. The Electrification and Energy Transition Panel has been tasked with advising the provincial government about “the highest value short, medium, and long-term opportunities for the energy sector to help Ontario’s economy prepare for electrification and the energy transition.”

Ontario is already an established leader in clean energy, however the provinces growing desire for a clean economy, coupled with the push for the electrification of transportation, is rapidly outpacing supply. This is bringing up issues and concerns regarding supply issues, leading to increased prices and unreliability. So although there is still lots of room for growth and expansion in the green energy sector, ensuring its done at the right pace and of course, sustainably, is critical to avoiding an energy crisis.

How The Ontario Power System Works

To understand how the energy sector in Ontario works, you need to understand how the electricity system in organized. Ontario’s power industry is complicated and multi-layered. There are power generators (such as Ontario Power Generation) who generate the electricity, transmitters (such as Hydro One) who transport the energy to towns/cities, and local distributors (such as Niagara Peninsula Energy) that ensure it the power reaches households and businesses. Meanwhile, the Independent Electricity Systems Operator oversees and monitors the balance of the supply across the grid (and forecasts energy needs), ensuring area demands are met as an entire system. This whole entirety of a system is regulated by the Ontario Energy Board (OEB), which really is just company that ‘polices’ natural gas and electricity companies with rules and regulations. Moreover, the Ministry of Energy creates and manages all energy policies in the province, providing guidelines, rules, and regulations to the OEB. Although a bit confusing, it all seems logical when you break it down into the layered parts.

Current Reality and Green Energy Achievements

Ontario is the first jurisdiction to phase out coal-fired electricity generation in all North America. This was, to date, one of the largest emission reduction ventures across the world. This seismic shift in energy generation has set a precedence for Ontario to further decarbonize the electricity industry. Currently, Ontario’s electricity system is 94% greenhouse gas emissions free. Unsurprisingly, hydroelectricity is the largest source of renewable electricity in Ontario, with other renewable minor sources coming from wind, solar and biomass. This year, Ontario’s electricity supply mix was made up of 34% nuclear, 28% natural gas, 23% hydro, 13% wind, 1% solar and less than 1%  biofuel — though not all used to their full capacity.

In Ontario, the demand for energy tends to fluctuate throughout the day (by as much as 10,000MW) between low and peak times of day. This variation in demand requires different energy sources to perform at different times and execute distinct roles. Some sources are needed to produce a constant supply of electricity, while others increase or decrease changes in the system occur second by second. For instance, nuclear and hydroelectric generation give constant, steady power 24 hours a day, where wind and solar often fluctuate dependent on the incoming supply of wind and sun. However, natural gas energy generation has a unique range of operating characteristics needed for the reliable operation of the power system, because it is consistent.

Currently, natural gas electricity generation accounts for nearly 30% of Ontario’s capacity to produce electricity, but only about 10% of total system output. However, this way of electricity production is expected to rise due to on-going energy demands as the grid expands and nuclear production facilities are refurbished or retired. In recent announcements, Todd Smith, the Ontario Energy Minister has stated that Ontario will continue to focus its efforts on low CO2 electrically production, but to solve the on-going energy crisis, will continue to support and ramp up gas-fired power over the next 5 or so years.

Right now, in Ontario, gas generation is crucial in ensuring reliability of the electricity grid as it can produce large amounts of power to meet high demands like no other resource can. As a result, the energy system relies on a mix of supply sources are key for meeting specific needs to ensure reliability and resilience as different sources/types of electricity production serve different functions to meet the greater need.

The Future of Electricity in Ontario

The ability to plan Ontario’s electricity needs requires careful consideration of a plethora of factors that impact both supply and demand, which affects reliability and affordability. The actual building and installation of new transmission infrastructure and generation facilities takes many years as it requires several steps before building can begin. As with any government involved venture, it becomes complicated with red tape and applications, including energy forecasting, obtaining necessary regulatory permits, environmental approvals, community engagement and integration into the greater provincial system.

Given this, it seems as though future plans for the Ontario energy industry are headed towards sustainability, but a clear pathway to get there has not been established. This is a huge industry that involves multiple government agencies (Ministry of the Environment Conservation and Parks, Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry & Ministry of Energy) to ensure a reliable, affordable, and sustainable energy system for all of Ontario. At this time, grants and funding are being pushed through these government agencies in order to modernize the grid to make it as ready as possible to start the transition to non-emission energy sources. This is years out, if not decades, based on the research conducted and available.

Final Thoughts & Discussion

In all honesty, when I took on this blog topic, I really did not realize it was so complex, with so many layers to break down and through. There are so many factors to consider when moving the grid to 100% clean energy, even if it is just the last 6%. This blog post just skims the top of this complicated system. Obviously, the ability to generate and distribute 100% clean energy is very technical and time consuming, something that goes above and beyond this blog.

At this time, the only solution that the government has to solve the on-going energy crisis is to ramp up natural gas energy production. This is a controversial solution, but one that has the ability to instantly increase energy production with little to no further investment. Although this way of generation does increase emissions outputs, there is no account for renewable natural gas (RNG).

Amidst all my research on this topic, one thing I didn’t see mention of RNG as a feed for the generation of electricity. Since one of our main outputs from our food waste collection system is RNG, this is something that we are passionate about here at Davidson Environmental. Natural gas has been continuously looked upon as controversial because it is a depleting natural resource, but RNG is very seldomly considered in the discussion. RNG is something that gas companies are utilizing to reduce their decarbonization, but nothing is mentioned directly for clean energy organizations. As we move our energy systems forward, RNG should be playing a larger role in conversations regarding the decarbonization of the energy system. It will be interesting where the energy system will be in the next five years, as the Ford government retires nuclear plants and focuses on natural gas energy generation.

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