How Ontario Went Coal-Free

Al Gore praised Ontario Thursday for eliminating coal from its electricity production.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Nov. 21, 2013, 11:11 a.m.

Some politi­cians in the U.S. are quick to dis­tance them­selves from the term “war on coal,” but lead­ers of Canada’s most-pop­u­lous province went be­fore the cam­er­as Tues­day in a full-throated cel­eb­ra­tion of its new coal-free status.

The shut­down of Ontario’s last coal-burn­ing plant — slated to hap­pen be­fore the end of this year — is the cul­min­a­tion of a goal set 10 years ago, when the province pro­duced a quarter of its elec­tri­city with coal power. The mile­stone isn’t a stop­ping point, said Premi­er Kath­leen Wynne, who used the event to pro­pose a ban for all fu­ture coal-plant con­struc­tion.

As if to erase any doubt Ontario is tak­ing its cues from the en­vir­on­ment­al com­munity, the province im­por­ted the plan­et’s most prom­in­ent cli­mate cam­paign­er to key­note the event. “Con­grat­u­la­tions, Ontario, and thank you, Ontario,” said former Vice Pres­id­ent Al Gore, launch­ing in­to a somber por­tray­al of the ef­fects of cli­mate change. “Moth­er Nature is pro­claim­ing the ur­gency of this crisis in ever more eas­ily un­der­stand­able tones.” But Ontario’s trans­ition of­fers hope, he said. “If we were ma­gic­ally able to do in the world what Ontario is an­noun­cing today, then half the CO2 [cur­rently in the at­mo­sphere] would fall out in a single gen­er­a­tion.”

So how did a province with a pop­u­la­tion lar­ger than Illinois wean it­self off coal in 10 years? A wide mix of al­tern­at­ive power sources, boos­ted by some gov­ern­ment help, have filled the gap. Since 2003, Ontario has seen the com­ple­tion of five nuc­le­ar pro­jects, 12 nat­ur­al gas pro­jects, five hy­dro­power pro­jects, and 17 wind pro­jects. Coal plants are be­ing con­ver­ted to run on nat­ur­al gas and bio­mass.

Coal still makes up 9 per­cent of Ontario’s in­stalled en­ergy ca­pa­city, but oth­er sources provide more than enough to meet peak de­mand on their own. Nuc­le­ar power is the lead­er with 36 per­cent; gas power makes up 28 per­cent; hy­dro­power provides 22 per­cent; and fast-grow­ing wind en­ergy comes in at 5 per­cent.

The province’s Green En­ergy Act, passed in 2009, provides cost con­sid­er­a­tions for re­new­able en­ergy sources that feed in­to the grid, a con­tro­ver­sial policy known as a feed-in tar­iff.

But while am­bi­tious goals and ag­gress­ive poli­cy­mak­ing have found res­ults north of the bor­der, such ac­tion is un­likely to be rep­lic­ated in the U.S., where 37 per­cent of the elec­tri­city still comes from coal. As Yale En­vir­on­ment 360 notes, “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.”

Even one of the most mar­gin­al en­a­blers of the coal-free trans­ition — in­creased en­ergy ef­fi­ciency — has run in­to obstacles in the United States. A widely sup­por­ted ef­fi­ciency bill stalled out in the Sen­ate in Septem­ber due to Re­pub­lic­an at­tempts to add non-ger­mane amend­ments.

And while the ever-po­lite Ca­na­dians took care not to scold neigh­bors who have been less act­ive on the cli­mate front, the mes­sage was clear: You can do this too. “There’s no deny­ing that cli­mate change is hap­pen­ing,” Wynne said. “We have the power to change our be­ha­vi­ors to re­verse this in­creas­ingly crit­ic­al prob­lem.”

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