Top Ten List for Energy Planning in Ontario

Last week, I was pleased to give a “wrap-up” presentation at All-Energy 2014. Wanting to keep it light and upbeat on the final afternoon of a long conference – and with the recent news of Letterman’s retirement from the Late Show to be replaced by Stephen Colbert – I thought I’d pay homage to David Letterman’s 32 years as host with a top ten list of my own (well, you can’t do stupid pet tricks on a blog!).  Be assured though, Ontario must take energy planning seriously and conservation is no laughing matter.  So here’s my top ten, each with a brief accompanying explanation.

  1. Plan on the basis of all fuels
    We obsess on electricity planning in Ontario and ignore other forms of energy. But if we care about the economy, our energy planning shouldn’t ignore petroleum fuels, which are imported; meaning revenue and jobs flow out of the province, whereas electricity is domestically produced.
  2. Integrate a cost of carbon
    Even Exxon, Shell, Google, GE and Walt Disney to name just some are putting a shadow price on carbon [.pdf]. for their long-term planning, as a risk management tool to avoid making bad decisions.  Ontario should do the same.
  3. Provide transparency, honesty and stakeholder participation
    Let’s be honest.  Government and industry should respond to the misinformation that is controlling the public policy debate.  They should set the record straight about the reasons for price changes and the contribution of nuclear, gas, renewable generation and transmission to price increases.
  4. Take advantage of the technological opportunities
    We are ignoring or have been under-utilizing options like waste heat, smart grid and thermal/electrical storage.
  5. Pursue building retrofits and energy consumption labelling
    Let’s take action on our existing stock of buildings which are a significant source of carbon dioxide emissions.  Provincial legislation exists to allow energy labelling; and there’s a Motion (no. 44) passed by the Legislature (47 Aye, 34 Nay) to require such labelling on houses at time-of-sale by end of 2014.
  6. Support renewable heat – geothermal and solar hot water
    Again, these are under-utilized and can be used elsewhere than just schools. Let’s update our Building Code like Vancouver has done.
  7. Seize low carbon opportunities in transportation
    Electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, light rail transit and electrification of heavy rail make perfect sense when we have low-carbon, low-cost electricity available during the night that is ideal for powering transportation.
  8. Create an open policy forum
    Remember when these were commonly used by governments to inform and develop policy … Ontario electricity policy especially is such a closed-off world.
  9. Always place energy conservation first
    Everywhere and every time, it’s the cheapest and best way forward for electricity.
  10. Show leadership
    We need someone to show us the path forward because we do not have a vision of where we are going.

Biochar and Biocoal – Valuable residues of energy production

The Commissioner is at the GLOBE Conference, checking out some innovative new technologies.

The BC energy company Diacarbon Energy Inc uses an energy-producing process called pyrolysis to convert wood biomass from construction or forest waste into biocoal, a dense substitute for fossil coal, or biochar, a charcoal-like material that improves soil and enhances plant growth.

LED Roadway Lighting

This week, the Commissioner is at the GLOBE Conference for Business and Environment, checking out some innovative new technologies.

In this video, he showcases a streetlight using energy efficient and environmentally friendly light emitting diode (LED) lights.

Is Ontario’s Energy System Resilient to Natural Gas Price Swings?

It’s been a long, cold winter. As the mercury has dipped, we’ve needed to use more energy to heat our buildings. In Ontario, natural gas is the dominant energy source for heating. Our major gas distributors (Union Gas and Enbridge Gas Distribution) use a complex mix of long-term contracts, storage, and purchases on the spot market to ensure that enough natural gas flows to meet our needs on even the coldest day of the year.

As this year’s cold winter wore on and gas storage reservoirs were depleted, utilities were forced to buy more gas on the spot market. Unfortunately, high demand sent prices skyward. Spot prices in February 2014 at Ontario’s Dawn trading hub were more than four times their usual value.

Monthly avg natural gas spot prices feb 2014

Source: Ontario Ministry of Energy

Enbridge Gas customers learned last week that their natural gas bills may rise by about $400 over the next year to allow Enbridge to recover the hundreds of millions of extra dollars it has spent on acquiring gas (.pdf, see pages 25 to 27), although the Ontario Energy Board has not yet approved this increase. This would be a huge rate hike – effectively a doubling of the gas commodity cost for customers (about a 40% increase in the overall bill). Union Gas is also seeking a large increase.

Higher gas prices spill over into our electricity pricing. This is because natural gas-fired electricity generators usually set the hourly electricity price when demand is high, and their bid prices will be affected by their cost to purchase gas. Wholesale electricity prices soared in January and February to levels not seen in eight years. This will be reflected in higher customer electricity bills, although the increase will not be as large as for gas utility bills.

The winter of 2013/2014 might be an anomaly, but it should introduce a note of caution about our high reliance in Ontario on natural gas to meet our energy needs (in addition to concerns about the environmental impact of its greenhouse gas emissions). We’ve grown accustomed over the past five years to low natural gas prices, but it’s worth noting that this may not last forever.

Of course, customers can reduce their vulnerability to swings in energy prices by conserving energy (both electricity and natural gas). However, it may be difficult to cut consumption much in the short term. Rather, investments in energy-saving measures such as insulation, high-efficiency furnaces, and more efficient lighting can deliver bill savings immediately but the investment will only be fully paid off over several years.

The choices we make as a society about how much emphasis to place on conservation (in our Building Code, product efficiency standards, and utility conservation programs) are often influenced by whether we think that a conservation action will be cost-effective (i.e. the value of the reduced energy costs will be greater than the cost of the conservation action). This calculation obviously relies heavily on our assumptions about future energy prices. The further out in the future we look, the more uncertain these assumptions become. Another problem with such cost-benefit calculations is that environmental impacts are usually ignored, which is why I have recommended that legislation governing our energy regulator be amended to include having regard to environmental as well as the consumer’s economic circumstances.  Economic analysis plays a valuable role, but it should be used as our servant, not our master.

The ECO’s Recognition Award Goes to…

MNR Staff for their Wasaga Beach Provincial Park Piping Plover Program!

Each year, I invite ministries to submit programs and projects for special recognition.  The ECO’s Recognition Award acknowledges ministry staff that best meet the goals of the Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993. This past year, six ministries responded to our call for nominations, submitting a total of 13 projects for consideration.  An arm’s-length panel reviewed the submissions.Piping Plover Chick-Stephen Muskie

I am happy to give this year’s ECO Recognition Award to staff at the Ministry of Natural Resources for their Wasaga Beach Provincial Park Piping Plover Program.  Today, we will be celebrating their achievement with an award ceremony at Queen’s Park.

The 2005 arrival of the piping plover to Wasaga Beach was significant as this endangered species had not successfully nested on the Canadian Great Lakes for over 30 years, and had not had breeding success at the park in over 70 years. The 2012 season marked the most successful season to date with a record of six fledged piping plovers.  MNR staff are to be commended for taking a proactive approach to the conservation of this species at risk in Wasaga Beach Provincial Park, which included extensive and highly successful public outreach and involvement, as well as habitat protection and ongoing monitoring.

Congratulations to these hardworking members of the Ontario Public Service, we owe you a debt of gratitude for the hard work you do!  They are role models for their passion and dedication in conserving Ontario’s biodiversity.

Photo credit: Stephen Muskie, c/o Ontario Nature.

Funding Energy Retrofits Through Local Improvement Charges

Many older buildings are draughty and poorly insulated, requiring excessive amounts of energy to heat and cool, and providing poor comfort to occupants. However, the upfront cost of financing an energy retrofit often deters homeowners from improving the energy performance of their homes.

Installing insulationIn October 2012, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing made regulatory changes that enable Ontario municipalities to use Local Improvement Charges (LICs) to finance energy retrofits on private property. In effect, the LIC can act as a loan from the municipality to the homeowner, recovered by the municipality in installments through the property tax administrative system over many years. The hope is that the reduction in energy use would lower energy bills and reduce the burden of the loan repayment. Depending on the choice of retrofit actions, the net financial impact for the homeowner may be cash-flow positive from the start.

The LIC offers several advantages as a means of financing energy efficiency projects, as I discussed in volume one of my 2012 energy conservation report. Municipalities may be able to offer financing through the LIC at lower interest rates, as they are protected from default. The LIC debt is attached to the property, not the property owner, which may be more attractive for owners who intend to sell the property in the near term, and might otherwise be unwilling to make a large investment in a retrofit.

Municipalities have shown interest in developing LIC-based energy retrofit programs, with twenty-two municipalities participating in the delightfully named CHEERIO (Collaboration on Home Energy Efficiency Retrofits in Ontario) to collaborate in the design of an LIC-based energy retrofit pilot program.

Several interesting developments have occurred in recent months.

The City of Toronto has been first out of the gate to launch an LIC-based retrofit program, the Home Energy Loan Program (HELP), which will fund energy improvements such as insulation, air sealing, and high efficiency heating and cooling equipment. Loans are available for 5 to 15 year terms, at rates ranging from 2.5% to 4.25%. For example, a homeowner taking out a $10,000 retrofit loan could choose to repay the loan on a 10 year term at 3.75%, making 11 payments each year of $110. In some cases, grants covering part of the cost are also available from the gas and electric utilities. Right now, the program is only available in certain neighbourhoods, but hopefully it will eventually be expanded city-wide. Full details can be found on the City of Toronto’s HELP website.

City of Toronto home retrofit help

Some municipalities that wish to offer an energy retrofit program may need assistance in establishing an initial seed fund for loans to property owners. In time, of course, the money would be recovered by the municipality through homeowners’ LIC payments.

Infrastructure Ontario (IO) has long offered loans to municipalities to fund infrastructure investments at low interest rates. I have previously recommended that municipalities should also be able to apply for IO loans as an option to facilitate home energy retrofits through local improvement charges. Happily, the government has acted on this recommendation, clarifying that municipalities can apply for IO loans that will be used for local improvement projects on private property [.pdf].

There is also an alternative approach proposed for financing energy retrofits, which is somewhat similar to LICs. In its new Long-Term Energy Plan, the Ministry of Energy has indicated that it will enable “on-bill financing” of energy retrofits, presumably through the gas or electricity utility bill, although no further details have been provided. While additional interest in energy retrofits is always welcome, there is a risk that this promise of future provincial action may prevent interested municipalities from following Toronto’s lead and launching their own programs. Let’s hope that the province clarifies its intention soon, so that more energy efficiency financing programs  – whether LIC-based or on-bill based  – can hit the market soon and reach more Ontario homeowners. So if you’re a homeowner in Toronto interested in improving the energy efficiency of your house, check out the City’s HELP program and see if it works for you. If you’re not in Toronto, why not ask your councillor what your municipality’s plans are for developing a retrofit program?

Government of Ontario Must Not Violate Provincial Endangered Species Legislation

The Province of Ontario risks being sanctioned by the Courts for blatantly violating its environmental laws, as has just happened to the Government of Canada. Last week, the Federal Court confirmed [.pdf] the Government of Canada’s responsibility to follow its own species at risk protection law, saying: “public officials are not above the law. If an official acts contrary to a statute, the Courts are entitled to so declare.”1 In this matter, the Court determined that the federal Ministers of the Environment and of Fisheries and Oceans broke the law when they failed to meet statutory deadlines for the production of recovery strategies for four federally-listed endangered and threatened species. As I have reported to the Legislature, the Ontario government has committed the very same offence by ignoring the statutory deadlines for producing recovery strategies for species at risk as required by the province’s Endangered Species Act, 2007.

CoverOntario’s Endangered Species Act, 2007 mimics much of the federal Act and also has legislated requirements to produce recovery strategies within specified timelines. As such, the Ontario Minister of Natural Resources would do well to take note of the Court’s warning: “It is simply not acceptable for the responsible Ministers to continue to miss the mandatory deadlines that have been established by Parliament.” Our provincial species at risk protection program is similarly plagued by delays and a chronic failure to meet statutory deadlines. In my 2013 Special Report Laying Siege to the Last Line of Defence I noted that six provincial recovery strategies were delivered late without posting the required notice of explanation on the Environmental Registry. Furthermore, the government has ignored the deadlines for the preparation of nine government response statements, which are also subject to statutory time limits.  For example, the government response statements for Polar Bear and Lake Sturgeon are now a year and a half overdue.

This federal case was brought to Court by environmental groups frustrated by the federal government’s failure to meet its responsibilities. It focuses attention on the importance of government following the word of the law, right down to a statutory deadline. In this respect, the findings of the Federal Court are a dire warning for the Minister of Natural Resources:

To state the obvious, the Species at Risk Act was enacted because some wildlife species in Canada are at risk. As the applicants note, many are in a race against the clock as increased pressure is put on their critical habitat, and their ultimate survival may be at stake.

The timelines contained in the Act reflect the clearly articulated will of Parliament that recovery strategies be developed for species at risk in a timely fashion, recognizing that there is indeed urgency in these matters. Compliance with the statutory timelines is critical to the proper implementation of the Parliamentary scheme for the protection of species at risk.2

Let us hope that the Ministry of Natural Resources responds to this warning, and that accountability for taking action to protect species at risk does not have to be found in the Courts of Ontario.

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1 Western Canada Wilderness Committee, et al. v Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and Minister of the Environment, 2014 FC 148, paragraph 66.
2 Western Canada Wilderness Committee, et al. v Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and Minister of the Environment, 2014 FC 148, paragraphs 101 and 102.

The EBR is Turning 20!

EBR at 20 logo

The Environmental Bill of Rights, the law that established the office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, was proclaimed 20 years ago this month.

Here are just some of the things we are doing to celebrate …

#EBR20 Video contest

We held a video contest inviting participants to submit videos about your right to get involved in environmental decision making. We are pleased to announce the winner, Have Your Say by Yazmin Parodi. Watch all the entries on YouTube!

An audio archive of Ontario’s environmental history

Logo ear and script

We have invited some of the people who participated in creating Ontario’s environmental movement to come and share their stories and experiences.

We covered topics such as the early days of Greenpeace and Pollution Probe, the Crown Forest Sustainability Act, the creation of the blue box, the Red Squirrel Road blockade in Temagami, and many others.

Recordings of these conversations, along with pictures, articles and other materials are available for you to explore on a new website called Environmental Beginnings, at environmentalbeginnings.ca.

Conference on Ontario’s EBR: Successes, Challenges and Opportunities

We are holding a conference today where speakers and panels will discuss the history, evolution, successes, challenges and future of this significant piece of environmental legislation. The conference will be followed by an evening reception to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the EBR.

These two events are being attended by members of the public, MPPs, Deputy Ministers, Legislative Officers, ministry staff, industry representatives, environmental lawyers, students and leaders of environmental organizations. Although registration for these events are already at capacity, materials and proceedings from the conference will be made available on our website.

Check out our website to see more ways we are celebrating!

What’s new in the ECO Resource Centre?

Something old and very valuable – documents donated from the personal collection of John Swaigen, a prominent Ontario environmental lawyer. These documents illuminate the beginnings of the environmental movement in Ontario, a movement that also brought forth the Environmental Bill of Rights. There are newsletters, news clippings, reports, meeting minutes, personal memos, press releases and much more. This information is now available for viewing by the public and can be found at the links below. You can hear more about the birth of the Environmental Bill of Rights in our audio archive of Ontario’s environmental history.