A third new gas-fired generating plant has been proposed for Niagara Region, promising more carbon-emitting electricity at a time when the federal government and the UN have repeatedly emphasized the importance of decarbonizing the grid.
The Thorold Peaking Plant Project will be powered by natural gas — mostly made up of the particularly powerful greenhouse gas methane — built on the same site as an existing gas plant, which recently received approval to upgrade and expand its generating capacity.
It will join new gas plants already approved in Windsor and outside Sarnia.
Northland Power, the project’s proponent, says the gas plant will have 198 megawatts of capacity – enough to power over 100,000 homes – and “will act as a backup resource to support and stabilize the regional energy grid, producing little energy and emissions.”
“Northland is conducting the appropriate assessments and is engaging in consultations with stakeholders,” said Victor Gravili, of Northland Power.
While the province says the gas plants are a “near-term need” necessary “to maintain system reliability,” critics question how often the turbines will be turned on, now that Ontario has entered an electricity crunch and is relying more heavily on its gas plants.
“You could make the case that having fossil gas is an emergency backup only plan. But that’s not what the government is doing,” said Green Party leader Mike Schreiner. “They’re ramping up the gas plants and running them far more than what’s needed to address peak demands.”
The province’s fleet of gas peaker plants currently operates just under six hours a day, on average, according to the Independent Electricity Operator (IESO). But they are slated to rapidly increase their runtime to more than 19 hours a day in 2026, as they ramp up to compensate for nuclear plants going offline for refurbishment.
Accompanying the drop in nuclear generation has been a recent growth in demand for electricity in Ontario – something that hasn’t happened since 2005 – fuelled by a return of industry, including new electric vehicle assembly plants and battery factories, both of which were attracted by the province’s 89 per cent carbon-free electricity.
But that clean electricity advantage has been eroding ever since Premier Doug Ford was elected in 2018, when the grid was 94 per cent non-emitting. Emissions from electricity are projected to quadruple by 2026, according to the IESO.
This puts Ontario on a collision course with Ottawa’s Clean Electricity Regulations, which will require a net-zero grid coast-to-coast by 2035.
The Ontario Energy Ministry has said the draft federal regulations, which are not yet finalized, will allow for some gas to remain on the grid for peak periods and emergency backup.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency have both said that in order to avoid the worst impacts of global warming, all countries must embark upon a “dramatic acceleration in the transitions to clean, sustainable energy that are already underway in many countries and industries.”
Opposition to the gas plants has been growing, with 34 municipalities across Ontario passing resolutions calling for a complete phaseout of the technology. In Toronto, city council has voted three times to oppose the expansion of the Portlands gas plant, which is not only the city’s number one source of carbon emissions, but also produces toxic air pollutants, like nitrogen dioxide, in one of the densest urban centres in the country.
“I feel for those residents because these gas plants aren’t just producing greenhouse gases but also toxic pollutants which particularly affect people’s health – especially those with asthma,” said Schreiner.
Last fall, the province put out a call for new gas peaker plants and battery storage. The storage would help Ontario capture its surplus wind energy, which was being sold off because it was being generated at night when there was little demand. The gas plants would help Ontario cover the shortfall caused by the nuclear refurbishments.
In its long term electricity plan, released earlier this week, the province said “there is currently no like-for-like replacement for natural gas,” touting its ability to be turned on at short notice to meet peak demand. In the same report, however, the province highlighted two pumped-water storage projects – in Meaford and Marmora – that will accomplish the same thing.
The grid-scale batteries being constructed at Six Nations, Hagersville, Napanee, King and elsewhere will also provide rapid-response carbon-free electricity at peak times – and at a fraction of the cost of gas, according to a recent assessment.
RBC recently produced a report that found efficiency and energy conservation could alone provide enough power so no new gas plants would need to be built. Incentives for smart thermostats and paying big producers to ramp down consumption during peak periods would save $450 million compared to the cost of the new gas plants, the report found.
Keith Brooks, program manager at Environmental Defense, said the peaker plants that have already been approved received contracts that pay them to be available, whether they produce electricity or not. Based on an average price released by the IESO, Brooks calculated that the province’s 1,500 megawatts of new gas plants would cost at least $5.5 billion.
“This gas plant is a mistake. It will raise the cost of hydro in Ontario,” said NDP MPP Peter Tabuns, a former energy critic and president of Greenpeace. “Both the Royal Bank of Canada and the Electricity Distributors Association have called for investment in much cheaper efficiency and conservation rather than expansion of the gas fleet. Higher prices and a hotter world, that is what this plant will give us.”
The province has said the new gas plants will need local approval to proceed. Northland Power is scheduled to make a presentation to Thorold municipal council on August 1.