By AMARACHI AMADIKE, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Following Ontario’s announcement of expansion plans for the Portlands Energy Centre, a coalition of East Toronto residents, together with climate activism groups, are preparing to rally in opposition of the province’s decision to extend its use of natural gas energy plants.
On Saturday, Nov 4, Toronto East Residents for Renewable Energy (TERRE) and 350.org will host the Phase out Gas Plants and Power Up Renewables rally at Jimmie Simpson Park (872 Queen St. E.) starting at noon.
TERRE is a coalition of climate groups including ClimateFast; Climate Voice; For Our Kids Toronto; Ontario Climate Emergency Campaign (OCEC; Seniors for Climate Action Now! (SCAN!); Toronto East End Climate Collective (TEECC); Environmental Defence; Toronto 350; and the Ontario Clean Air Alliance (OCAA).
Angela Bischoff, the Director of Ontario Clean Air Alliance and one of the rally’s organizers, is speaking out against Ontario’s decision to go back on a promise made to Toronto Council in which it pledged to refrain from increasing the burning of natural gas at energy plants in the city without the consent of councillors.
However, provincial officials say that since the Portlands gas plant on Unwin Avenue is only undergoing upgrades, Toronto Council’s approval is not needed.
“The reality is they’re increasing the output by 50 megawatts and they’re not giving any information about how much excess pollution this will cause,” said Bischoff.
Tom Patterson, the Director of Energy Management at Atura Power (a subsidiary of Ontario Power Generation that runs the Portlands Energy Centre), said that the expansion would not increase the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions as the upgrades aim to make the plants more efficient by getting more power output from the facility “for substantially the same amount of fuel” during a time when Toronto is need for alternative energy sources.
“That’s their rationale,” said Bischoff. “But there are many other ways to meet those increased needs.”
Bischoff said that rather than ramping up gas plant output, the province could explore avenues such as the expansion of renewable power or the utilization of bi-directional batteries to meet energy demands during peak periods.
Ontario’s Crown corporation responsible for operating the electricity market, The Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), appears to be taking steps in this direction with the announcement of seven new energy storage projects to provide 739 MW of capacity. These energy storage facilities will charge up during off-peak hours and then provide Ontarians with energy when demands increase.
Considering that wind and solar can only provide power to the grid when the sun is shining or during windier days, some are skeptical about a complete transition to renewable energy as natural gas has a more reliable reputation. However, investment in energy storage facilities by IESO is a way to supplement future demands during periods when wind and solar are inadequate sources of energy.
Bischoff, however, said the decision by the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Doug Ford to upgrade the Portlands gas plant, which is “already the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the City of Toronto”, counteracts the IESO’s movement toward energy efficiency and takes Toronto further away from its goal of reaching Net Zero emissions by 2040.
“The whole world is moving towards a much more decentralized energy efficient future with heat pumps, bi-directional batteries [or] solar panels on people’s roofs that are feeding back into the grid,” said Bischoff. “Ontario on the other hand, led by Doug Ford, is moving towards more [nuclear power] and more gas.”
With more than half of Ontario’s energy sourced by nuclear power plants, the province is now feeling the effects of heavy reliance on nuclear reactors. As some of the reactors undergo maintenance and refurbishment, Ontario has been forced to meet heightened energy needs by increasing the output of gas plants.
This has attracted criticism from many including Toronto-Danforth MPP and the NDP’s Critic for Energy and the Climate Crisis, Peter Tabuns, who condemned the province for running the Portlands gas plant, which is only supposed to run during peak energy consumption periods, for 21 hours a day this past summer.
“If the government had not cancelled the energy conservation programs the way they had [and] continued building renewable energy the way they were committed to, then there would be much less need for burning gas to make electricity,” said Tabuns.
Tabuns told Beach Metro Community News that if the provincial government had done the preparatory work for the nuclear reactors’ offline period, Ontario would have avoided a situation where it was forced to run its gas plants for extended periods of time at the expense of the air quality.
“We’ve known that the reactors were going to get refurbished for about two decades, so it isn’t as though they just found out a few years ago,” said Tabuns.
“We couldn’t shut the gas plants down tomorrow. We couldn’t shut them down today because we would have no power. But their goal has to be phasing out burning gas so that we don’t have climate disruptions that will make life very difficult for all of us,” he said.
Toronto’s Portlands Energy Centre was scheduled to close down by 2029. However, the latest developments have extended its lifespan by another five years “in the midst of a climate crisis which makes absolutely no ecological sense”, according to Bischoff.
“It doesn’t even make economic sense,” she said.
From an economic standpoint, a move towards renewable energy is favourable, according to Bischoff, because the world is moving in this direction which has led to a scaling down of the cost of investment in renewable energy.
“Nuclear and peak gas power are way off the charts,” said Bischoff. “Wind, water and solar are about a quarter of the price. We could put turbines off of Toronto’s lakeshore. We could put offshore wind turbines in all the Great Lakes in Ontario.”
According to the Clean Energy Canada Report Clean Energy Canada Report, wind and solar energy is expecting a 40 per cent cost reduction by 2035 “compared to relatively flat costs for new gas deployments”.
“Even without carbon pricing, wind power is set to be 40 per cent cheaper than gas-fired-power in [Ontario] by 2030,” stated the report.
However, the cheaper cost does little to sway energy companies into serious pledges to invest in renewable energy as this generates returns on investments that are far less than those of the natural gas or nuclear industry. Renewable energy investments, according to energy economist Nick Butler, average about five to eight per cent return on investment whereas oil and gas – although a volatile sector – can be expected to generate returns upwards of 15 per cent.
“My observation is that [the Ford government] seems to consistently make decisions that are helpful to private power companies and gas companies,” said Tabuns. “I couldn’t tell you precisely what’s going on in the background but it seems to be very clear that when they have a choice to help private power companies and fossil fuel companies to make money, that’s where they go.”
Tabun’s frustrations are mirrored by many East Toronto residents.
At TERRE’s Phase out Gas Plants and Power Up Renewables rally on Nov. 4, participants will discuss options for a more sustainable future and hear from speakers such as long-time East End resident and member of TERRE David Smith; Adrian Currie, Program Manager for Ontario Climate at Environmental Defence; Cathy Tsong-Kwe-Deh; Allie Rougeot, a Toronto-based climate activist; and Lyn Adamson, Co-Chair of the City of Toronto’s Climate Advisory Group.
Following speeches at Jimmie Simpson Park, residents will march towards Toronto-Danforth Liberal MP Julie Dabrusin’s office where the rally will continue. As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, TERRE is hoping Dabrusin will add her voice to the call to phase out gas plants in Ontario by 2030.
“She works on electricity regulations and the federal government is releasing a new clean electricity regulation because they have jurisdiction over climate emissions,” said Bischoff. “They’ve signed on to international agreements that committed the government of Canada to reducing emissions.
Bischoff is calling on the federal government to establish a clean electricity regulation and bind the province to a collective goal.
For more information on the Nov. 4 rally, please go to https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSf2EVL3Sht9Owe3o2xnnffuHOrH2WRcFQJfMMTQMgwFiNLUSQ/viewform
Amarachi Amadike is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Beach Metro Community News. His reporting is funded by the Government of Canada through its Local Journalism Initiative.