Ontario’s 2007 Climate Change Action Plan outlined “coal phase-out, renewables, and other electricity initiatives” as measures to help Ontario achieve its greenhouse gas reduction targets, which call for reductions below 1990 levels of 6% by 2014, 15% by 2020, and 80% by 2050.
The Ministry’s 2010 Long-Term Energy Plan reiterated the commitment to improve the health of Ontarians and to fight climate change by investing in renewable energy and phasing out coal, which is the largest source of greenhouse gases and accounts for a number of health and environmental problems.
The Ministry indicated that renewable energy will help reduce greenhouse gases by displacing gas-fired generation. However, as noted earlier, any significant increase in intermittent renewable energy requires backup power by either coal- or gas-fired plants because wind and solar power have relatively low reliability and capacity. In Ontario’s case, because coal-fired plants are being phased out by the end of 2014, this backup will need to come from gas-fired plants. Although gas-fired plants emit fewer greenhouse gases than coal-fired plants, they still contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Our review of experiences in other jurisdictions showed that the original estimated reduction in greenhouse gases had not been reduced to take into account the continuing need to run fossil-fuel backup power-generating facilities. For instance:
- A 2008 study in the United Kingdom found that power swings from intermittent wind generation need to be compensated for by natural-gas generation, which has meant less of a reduction in greenhouse gases than originally expected.
- A 2009 study in Denmark noted that although the country is the world’s biggest user of wind energy, it has had to keep its coal-fired plants running to maintain system stability.
- The German government also had to build new coal-fired plants and refurbish old ones to cover electricity requirements that could not be met through intermittent wind generation.
According to the Ministry, Ontario is unique in its commitment to phase out coal by the end of 2014: other jurisdictions did not make that commitment. The Ministry has not yet quantified how much backup power will be required from other energy sources to compensate for the intermittent nature of renewable energy, and accordingly has no data on the impact of gas-fired backup power plants on greenhouse gas emissions.
In recent years, there have been growing public-health concerns about wind turbines, particularly with regard to the noise experienced by people living near wind farms. In May 2010,Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health issued a report concluding that available scientific evidence to date did not demonstrate a direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects. However, the report was questioned by environmental groups, physicians, engineers, and other professionals, who noted that it was merely a literature review that presented no original research and did not reflect the situation in Ontario. We also noted that only a limited number of renewable generators were in operation in Ontario when the report was prepared in spring 2010, a few months after the launch of the FIT program.
One of the provisions of the Act was the establishment of an academic research chair to examine the potential effects of renewable energy generators on public health. In February 2010, an engineering professor from the University of Waterloo was appointed to this position but, as of July 2011, there had been no report on the results of any research conducted to date.
To ensure that renewable energy initiatives are effective in protecting the environment while having minimal adverse health effects on individuals, the Ministry of Energy should:
- develop adequate procedures for tracking and measuring the effectiveness of renewable energy initiatives, including the impact of backup generating facilities, in reducing greenhouse gases; and
- provide the public with the results of objective research on the potential health effects of renewable wind power.
The Ministry agrees that the impacts of increasing the share of renewable energy in Ontario’s energy mix should be quantified where possible and underpinned by objective research. For example, a 2005 independent study, Cost Benefit Analysis: Replacing Ontario’s Coal-Fired Electricity Generation, found that if health and environmental impacts were accounted for, the total cost of coal-fired generation would be $4.4 billion per year. This study helped reaffirm the province’s decision to phase out coal and to increase the share of renewable energy in Ontario’s energy mix.
The Ministry will continue to rely on the Chief Medical Officer of Health to provide objective advice on the potential health impacts of renewable energy generators. The Chief Medical Officer of Health’s recent review found that the scientific evidence does not demonstrate any direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects.
The Ministry will continue to work with other ministries to promote further scientifically based information about the impacts of renewable energy. For example, the Ministry of the Environment has appointed an independent research chair for a five-year term to undertake research on the health impacts of renewable energy generators. Considerable work is well under way by the chair and his team to address the important technological, health, and safety aspects of the renewable energy technologies.
Ongoing plans, including the Integrated Power System Plan, identify the environmental emissions from planned resources, and they clearly identify a reduction in emissions over the time that the OPA has been involved in planning and procuring resources and through the planning horizon.