Thunder Bay Power plant shocker – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial (November 4, 2012)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

JUST when Northwestern Ontario had some wind in its sails — bam! — the penny-pinching province becalms mining-related momentum by suddenly cancelling the conversion of Thunder Bay’s electricity generating station from coal to gas. There are a whole raft of questions still to come, and there might well be good answers to them. But for the time being, this plan looks hair-brained.

First, it flies in the face of the province’s vaunted coal phase-out policy built on converting newer plants in order to keep the lights on in various regions. Converting Thunder Bay Generating Station to natural gas and Atikokan to biomass is a central plank in the clean-air platform. Atikokan is still proceeding but it will only produce 20 megawatts at the best of times.

Thunder Bay GS would produce 700 MW from gas. Removing that capacity from the grid would leave the Northwest destitute for electricity just when it needs a lot of it to power the new mining boom, area leaders said Friday at a news conference punctuated with expressions of dismay.

The energy minister cautions this is temporary — for now — while the Ontario Power Authority prepares a new plan for the North built around a doubling in capacity of the east-west tie line to 600 MW. If you add 680 MW available from the region’s hydro-electric operations, Atikokan’s 20 MW and 32 MW from the still-proposed Big Thunder Wind Park you’ve got just about enough, with a small margin, to supply the expanding mining industry’s needs by 2016 when much of it is expected to begin production.

But there’s just one thing, and it’s becoming more apparent all the time. Drought caused by climate change will drop water levels behind power dams more often and require the importation of power at even higher cost than is now such an issue with industry leaders. Doesn’t it make more sense to keep the Northwest self-sufficient, especially with all this new industry coming?

The tieline expansion won’t be finished until 2017 and that’s being generous, given the propensity for public mega-projects to drag on. That’s a year after mining is expected to need a surge in power that may well be much greater than is now being estimated, given that exploration keeps turning up new finds.

We’re willing to wait on the OPA report but we’re with Thunder Bay and Northwest leaders in saying that if those numbers aren’t rock solid in terms of supply, the Thunder Bay plant conversion must continue on schedule.