Plenty of questions to be answered [Thunder Bay power plant] – Kris Ketonen (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal – November 14, 2012)

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

Despite several still-unanswered questions, Thunder Bay representatives are encouraged about the future of the Thunder Bay Generating Station after meeting with the provincial energy minister on Tuesday.

The government announced that it was putting a hold on the conversion of the plant from coal-burning to natural gas-burning.

The decision came as a result of assertions by the Ontario Power Authority that halting the conversion would save $400 million, while other initiatives — including expanding the east-west tieline that ships power between Northern and southern Ontario — would ensure the region’s energy needs are met.

Regional representatives, however, say the region’s power needs can’t be met if the plant isn’t running, especially given the looming mining boom. Nine mines are expected to start up in the Northwest within the next five years, bringing major power requirements with them. After meeting with Bentley on the matter, Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs said he was encouraged.

“He’s assured us that the energy needs will be met for the Northwest, and he hasn’t said no to the conversion,” Hobbs said.
“He said that the OPA takes direction from him, not the other way around.

“That was encouraging.”

Bentley has said he’s waiting on further information from the OPA before making a final decision on the Thunder Bay plant’s future.

Coun. Joe Virdiramo, chairman of the city’s inter-governmental liaison committee, said there’s still far too much mystery surrounding the matter.

“It’s OK to say the energy needs will be met,” he said after the meeting.

“We want to know how.

“We want the plant to be converted, and we want the plant to generate electricity,’’ said Virdiramo.

“They can say that they’re going to bring us . . . power on the east-west line; however, that would mean shutting the plant down.

“We don’t want that to happen. It means jobs, it means economic development, so we impressed on the minister that he needs to take a look at all the issues in relation to how this impacts Thunder Bay and the region.”

Hobbs said all levels of government stand to lose if the mining industry doesn’t take off in Northern Ontario.

“The economic spinoffs for the region, and the country and the province, are about $5.3 billion,” Hobbs said.

The average life of a mine is 17 1/2 years, he said, and mines tend to generate about $300 million per year in tax revenues.

“The future of economic development in the Northwest is at stake here,” said Hobbs.

Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association president Ron Nelson, who also attended the meeting, suggested that the region should push for the creation of a Northern power authority, which would be better suited to address the specific energy issues pertaining to Northwestern Ontario.

The province is also citing the completion of the Little Jackfish hydro station as a way to make up any power loss. But, the capacity of such stations are susceptible to environmental factors such as drought.

Meanwhile, the $400-million figure continues to be a source of confusion.

“I can tell you, very clearly, that never before has any number coming even close to that been used when it comes to the conversion of this . . . facility,” said Thunder Bay-Atikokan MPP Bill Mauro, who also attended the meeting with Bentley.
“The number that’s been used historically has been somewhere in the range of $125-150 million (for the conversion).

“Clearly, the OPA must be dealing in some future operating costs to come up with a number like $400 million. It’s obvious that (building) in future operating costs is something you would have to do no matter what the plant is operating as, whether it’s burning coal, whether it’s burning gas, whether it’s burning biomass.

“I see it as a bit of a red herring.”

Natural Resources Minister Michael Gravelle, MPP for Thunder Bay-Superior North, said keeping the plant running is “vital” to the region, and that the delegates did a good job of presenting their argument to the minister.

“I’m hopeful that (Tuesday’s) meeting was a very valuable use of time,” said Gravelle.

Timmins-James Bay NDP MPP Gilles Bisson, his party’s critic for the ministries of Natural Resources and Northern Development and Mines, said the provincial Liberals are stringing the plant along in an effort to secure votes.

“Two elections ago, the government made a promise . . . to keep that plant running,” Bisson said from Queen’s Park. “That was obviously done because they were concerned about Mr. Mauro and Mr. Gravelle in regards to what was going on electorally.

“Then they changed. Then they said ‘no, we’re not going to keep it, we’re going to convert it,” he said. “That got them to this election.

“Then, all of a sudden, the government says ‘well, never mind, we’re not even going to do the conversion.’”

Bisson acknowledged the government hasn’t decided to shut the plant down yet, but, he pointed out the deadline to shut down coal-fired generation is fast approaching, and the local plant is running out of time.

Bentley has not put a timeline on his decision.

Hobbs said he hopes to hear back from Bentley by December.