It wasn’t that long ago that smog warnings, acid rain and air pollution caused a host of environmental and human health problems in the province. In addition to vehicles and other sources of fossil fuel combustion, coal production, generated by Ontario’s five coal-fired generating stations, contributed greatly to the province’s once-toxic air quality.
For those that may not know or remember, smog warnings would be declared in the province on days when it wasn’t as safe to be outside due to the amount of toxins in the air.
In 2003, coal represented 25 per cent of Ontario’s energy supply mix. By 2014, it was zero.
Thanks to a coordinated and phased approach, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in North America to completely eliminate coal as a source of electricity.
Clean Energy Canada declared that the province’s phase out of coal was the single largest greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction initiative in North America to date; effectively removing 17 per cent of Ontario’s GHG emissions (the equivalent to taking seven million cars off the road).
Today, 94 per cent of electricity generated in Ontario is free of GHG emissions.
“Coal production in Ontario and from other parts of North America, like the midwestern United States, were big contributors to Ontario’s acid rain and smog problems in those days,” says Gideon Forman, Climate Change and Transportation Policy Analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation. “Coal plants also produce mercury and arsenic which led to health problems for many Ontarians. The particulate matter in smog, some of which comes from coal plants, is a factor in lung cancer and a number of other serious ailments.”
Unlike in the United States where coal plants are privately owned - and much harder to shut down, the plants in Ontario were publicly owned. Despite producing a quarter of the province’s power supply, Forman says there was a lot of public support to get off coal from an air quality perspective and, as the movement grew, a climate change perspective.
The coalition to end coal in the province was a shared endeavour by the Ontario Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines, and two of its energy branches: Ontario Power Generation and the Independent Electricity System Operator.
In his previous role as Executive Director for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Forman recalls that it was also Ontario’s doctors and nurses who helped advise the government and educate the public. While the government recognized the positive health and environmental impacts, it was driven behind the scenes by science and the human impact shared by healthcare professionals about their patients’ suffering from Ontario’s air pollution.
To mitigate the possible shortfall in generation as the province transitioned away from coal between 2003 and 2014, it increased capacity of its natural gas generators by 5,500 megawatts and returned two nuclear units to service at Bruce Power (refurbished to provide more than 1,500 megawatts). “Even though they weren’t clean alternatives in my opinion, it was seen as a short term bridge to keep the system stable.”
In addition to a slight bump in hydroelectric power by 2014, the most exciting part of the coal phase-out for Forman was the promise of more than 5,500 megawatts of renewable energy, particularly from wind and solar. While only accounting for 7 per cent of supply in 2014 (when the last coal plant closed in Thunder Bay), it helped the province set the stage for serious renewable investments and a cleaner, more sustainable future.
“We’re seeing major countries like Germany, Britain, China and Scandinavia scaling up in renewables and their economies are thriving,” says Forman. “It’s really practical for a country like ours, which has a relatively small population but a world-class solar and wind resource such as on the prairies of southern Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and an abundance of hydro power in Québec. All this, combined with conservation initiatives, tells me it’s absolutely possible to power Canada with 100 per cent renewable energy.”
It’s a similar goal the Government of Canada shares, promising that the entire country will be entirely coal-free by 2030 and 100 per cent emissions-free by 2050. Whether that future will be solely powered by renewable energy is yet to be seen.
Asked what excites him about his field and the future, Forman notes 18-year old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, and the youth climate movement that is sweeping the globe. “Young people are taking to the streets and demanding action from their governments. I find that really impressive and moving.”
The coalition to end coal has perhaps evolved into the coalition to end climate change. A new generation. A new, important cause.
For its part, Hydro Ottawa vows to help build a smart energy future for the Nation’s Capital by meeting the community’s energy needs and its environmental expectations. Hydro Ottawa’s subsidiary, Portage Power, is Ontario’s largest municipally-owned producer of green power, with hydroelectric, solar and landfill gas-to-energy generation facilities generating enough renewable electricity to power 107,000 homes. Innovation continues to be a priority: In October 2020, Hydro Ottawa, in partnership with Zibi Canada and Kruger Products, began construction on the Zibi Community Utility, a district energy cooling and heating system that will provide zero-carbon power for all Zibi tenants and residents at the 34-acre waterfront community in downtown Ottawa (scheduled to come online in 2021).
To hear more about the end of coal in Ontario, check out our full in-depth interview with Gideon Forman on our ThinkEnergy podcast here.