Ontario residents are likely accustomed to reading of excess electricity being sold at bargain-basement rates to American neighbours. Ontario often generates more electricity than it needs, and it is better to sell it for pennies than to try to cut power generation when demand is low, and boost it back up when demand rises.
But the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE) says there’s a much better solution. It says excess power can be kept in Ontario, still sold at bargain-basement rates but to Ontario businesses, where it can be used to displace fossil fuel. OSPE is the advocacy group for the engineering profession in Ontario.
OSPE makes its case in “Empower Ontario’s Engineers to Obtain Opportunity: An Analysis of Ontario’s Clean Electricity Exports”. As the title suggests, the report is partly an argument to involve the engineering profession in policy-making, and partly an argument for restructuring Ontario’s electricity market.
Paul Acchione, past president and chair of OSPE, explains it this way to EcoLog News: current pricing structures make it difficult to move industry from inexpensive natural gas to costly electricity. But if the surplus green energy that is currently exported at the cost of production (which, for green energy, is close to zero) were to be made available to industry at the same price, it would provide a powerful incentive to re-engineer the industrial energy mix.
For instance, a gas-fired boiler could be converted to a gas and electricity-fired boiler, and off-the-shelf technology could switch on the electric heater when cheap surplus green energy is available on the grid, and return it to gas-fired when it is not. The result, Acchione argues, would be lower costs for users, a reduction in Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions, and more investment in technology at home.
“It’s just a matter of us getting our head around the fact that on a clean grid, electricity is relatively free, and capacity is very expensive,” says Acchione. “So once you’ve built it, you might as well take advantage of it.”
It would require a total change in how electricity is priced in Ontario, a shift that Acchione admits would be unfamiliar to electricity consumers not only in Ontario, but to observers around the world. Nobody, he says, has done this before. Electricity pricing would become a combination of the marginal cost of production, which on a clean grid like Ontario’s is pennies per kilowatt, and a fixed charge for each consumer’s share of the capacity: the dams, windmills, wires and towers.
It’s going to happen, says Stephen Hill, associate professor and associate director of Trent University’s School of the Environment. “We’re going to electrify heating and cooling. We’re going to electrify transportation,” Hill tells EcoLog News. The issue is how fast we accelerate the transition, he says.
Putting something like this in place would require a smart grid, says Warren Mabee, professor of geography at Queen’s University and Canada Research Chair in Renewable Energy Development and Implementation. “That’s the essential piece of this puzzle,” Mabee tells EcoLog News. “If you really want the green electrons to be the ones that are in use, you’ve got to have a smart grid that can shuffle that energy to the users. Right now, we don’t think of it that way,” says Mabee.
Hill also warns that the shift from fossil fuels in Ontario could come at the cost of more valuable fossil fuel displacement elsewhere, and that would not necessarily be good for the climate. Exported green energy likely displaces coal in the United States, he says, a far more potent source of carbon emissions than natural gas in Ontario.