Raising the Bar on Renewables in Ontario

With the long-awaited re-launch of the Feed-in Tariff Program [.pdf], the renewable energy industry in Ontario has been recharged.  With the new rules established, Ontario can get on with the business of building new wind, solar and biomass projects to meet the government target of procuring 10,700 MW of non-hydro renewable electricity generating capacity [.pdf].  This is good news for those concerned about the growing impacts of global warming because all of this new capacity will help facilitate the phase-out of coal-fired electricity from the provincial supply mix by the end of 2014, moving us further along the path towards the GHG reduction targets set out in Ontario’s Climate Change Action Plan.

Solar panels and wind turbine producing renewable energy

The key question on many people’s minds is: what happens after?  Will Ontario stop building additional non-hydro renewable electricity capacity and be content with these sources supplying only 13 per cent of electricity generation in 2030 as projected in the Long-term Energy Plan [.pdf], or will Ontario continue to move aggressively forward into a renewable energy future? If the government chooses the latter path, it won’t be embarking alone. Germany, which decided last year to entirely phase out it’s nuclear generating capacity, is forecasting a greater than 60 per cent share for non-hydro renewables by 2030 and Denmark intends to supply 100 per cent of its entire energy supply (electricity, heating, industry and transport) by renewable sources by 2050. While Ontario has yet to set such lofty goals, there may be a window of opportunity open next year when the government reviews whether a higher target for renewable electricity supply is warranted.

The good news is that an electricity system powered predominantly by renewable energy technologies that are commercially available today is technically possible given a more flexible, or “smart” electricity grid. This is the central finding of the Renewable Electricity Futures Study, which was recently released by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.  The study looked at the extent to which renewable energy supply can meet the electricity demands of the continental United States over the next several decades. It found that renewable electricity generation is more than adequate to supply 80 per cent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 provided that the flexibility of the electricity system is enhanced with grid storage, demand response, new transmission infrastructure and flexible conventional generation.

While perhaps not directly comparable to the continental U.S., Ontario is arguably better positioned to embark on an aggressive drive for renewable energy because hydroelectric power already provides around 20 per cent of electricity supply compared to only around 7 per cent in the U.S.  The province has also begun the important work of implementing the smart grid by installing technologies such as smart meters which facilitate demand response (through time-of-use rates) and exploring the potential of energy storage technologies, both of which are fundamental prerequisites to integrating larger shares of renewable energy technologies into the grid.  Furthermore, there is major work underway by Hydro One to update the province’s electricity transmission system to handle new generation.  To the ECO it seems that the building blocks for a more aggressive renewable electricity future are in place. Will the government raise the bar to make it happen?