In February, the David Suzuki Foundation, Équiterre and the Ontario Clean Air Alliance urged the federal government to facilitate greater electricity trade between Ontario and Quebec. We particularly wanted Ontario to purchase more of its eastern neighbour's abundant water-generated power.
In June, we made a similar request to Ontario's then energy minister, Bob Chiarelli, noting Quebec hydro power could complement Ontario's variable wind and solar generation and replace some of its nuclear baseload power.
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On October 21, the two provinces announced Ontario would import up to two terawatt hours of Quebec hydro power annually from 2017 to 2023 — "enough electricity to power a city of 240,000 people," according to The Globe and Mail.
The deal is auspicious for at least three reasons.
First, it shows the Ontario government recognizes natural gas-fired power is problematic. During the phase-out of Ontario's coal plants, government often held up gas as a good alternative. No one wanted the dirty black rock and gas was seen as an acceptable replacement. But this hydro deal signals a shift. The official statement says the new hydro will be imported "at targeted times when natural gas would otherwise be used." The Globe and Mail says the hydro power will replace approximately 15 per cent of Ontario's natural gas-fired electricity. That's not a dramatic reduction, but the policy implication is clear: Ontario is taking seriously the need to further cut fossil fuel use, implicitly admitting we can't meet our climate targets if we rely too heavily on natural gas.
The hydro deal also addresses energy storage. The official statement says Ontario will "leverage Quebec's energy storage capacities to make better use of its own clean energy resources." Critics often cite storage as a major barrier to renewables expansion. One attendee at a consultation on Ontario's long-term energy plan I attended claimed the province couldn't move to 100 per cent renewables because it "didn't have the technology (and) doesn't have the storage capacity to deal with solar and wind power." True, these technologies don't produce electricity at all times. So when they do, their output needs to be stockpiled. But, as we said in our joint letter to the federal government, Quebec's water power reservoirs could "be used like a giant battery to convert Ontario's intermittent solar and wind power into a firm, 24/7 source of base-load electricity." When Ontario renewables are producing above average amounts of power, the surplus could be sent to Quebec to help run its grid, allowing Quebec to store more water. Water could then be used to produce power for Ontario when its solar and wind generation is below average. The deal shows the naysayers that an all-renewable power system can work.
The plan should help to lower electricity prices as well. The Clean Air Alliance says Ontario will buy Quebec water power for five or six cents per kilowatt hour. Output from the Darlington nuclear plant — currently being refurbished — costs at least eight cents per kilowatt hour.
Detractors often say renewables are too expensive to afford and their intermittency is a fatal shortcoming. The new inter-provincial electricity policy should help put these canards to rest.
Gideon Forman is a Climate Change Policy Analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation.