Between 2005 and 2014, Ontario shutdown all of its coal plants. Now, approximately 94% of Ontario’s electricity comes from sources that do not emit carbon, including hydroelectric, nuclear, wind, and solar power. But after all of the hard and expensive work to shift off of coal, Ontario is backsliding. The most recent forecast from Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) shows that over the next decade greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector will double and within 20 years those emissions will almost triple.
These skyrocketing carbon emissions are directly attributable to an increased use of natural gas to generate electricity. Where today natural gas is used to generate just 6% of Ontario’s electricity, if Pickering Nuclear Generating Station is decommissioned, the figure will jump to 24% by 2040. A key reason for this jump is that natural gas’s role in today’s energy supply mix is to provide peaking power, which is electricity Ontario only needs during short periods of the day when electricity is being used the most. If natural gas is used to replace nuclear power, it will be used for baseload power, which is electricity that the province needs 24 hours per day.
The IESO recently examined whether it is possible to eliminate natural gas from the province’s energy supply mix by 2030. The agency concluded that it would not be viable to completely eliminate gas without risking blackouts. However, through newer technology it may be possible to reduce the amount of gas Ontario uses until there is enough non-emitting power capacity to replace natural gas completely. These new technologies include various ways to generate electricity at times it isn’t needed, such as the middle of the night, and then store it for use at times when it is needed. Though storage has been useful in smaller scale situations, it has not been tested at such a large scale that anyone could say with certainty that it is a viable substitute for natural gas.
Though there is no viable alternative to a short-term increase in natural gas usage, if decision-makers act quickly they can minimize natural gas’s role now and eliminate gas from the electricity grid as soon as possible. This will require refurbishing Pickering Nuclear Generating Station’s Unit B reactors, advancing as quickly as possible on energy storage technology, beginning the process of planning and licensing a new full-sized CANDU nuclear generating station, and building out the first and subsequent small modular nuclear reactors. New wind and solar power installations will also be helpful for phasing out natural gas’s role in providing peaking power.