Let’s not buy a power plant – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal editorial (November 15, 2012)

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

THE devolution of central government has seen municipalities forced to pick up responsibilities and costs on many fronts. We don’t need more. Ottawa has been offloading programs onto provinces and “downloading” has become a dirty word in Ontario where municipalities with limited local tax bases have been expected to take on everything from selected health care to courtroom security.

Social services are legislated by the province but the costs that are apportioned over every municipality in Thunder Bay District are staggering for some. In order to secure a new regional hospital, Thunder Bay taxpayers voted to assume $25 million of the cost. This week, Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs resurrected the idea of buying the provincial power plant located on Mission Island. Let’s not. Instead, let us insist the province fulfill its mandate to supply electricity.

As part of widespread cost-saving measures, the Ontario Power Authority is considering cheaper methods of providing electricity to Northern Ontario. It claims it can supply all the power needed — including that for a new mining boom — by expanding the main east-west transmission line. Closing the Thunder Bay Generating Station would save $400 million, OPA says. Local officials scoff at this notion and insist that planned conversion of the coal plant to natural gas is essential if the region is to provide all the power needed to feed dozens of existing and pending mines.

Energy Minister Chris Bentley is willing to wait to see OPA’s detailed plan before he decides the fate of the Thunder Bay plant. But Hobbs and others don’t want any part of a cost-saving experiment they say may leave the area short of electricity.

Thunder Bay is already paying a great deal for former provincial programs. The power plant would be expensive. Replacement cost has been set at $1-2 billion while an earlier joint purchase bid was for $200 million. As for conversion to gas, a case can be made to have the province fund its own project through to completion.

Does Thunder Bay really want to add the cost of buying and operating a big power plant to its existing hydro bill? It seems doubtful that the province would risk leaving this region short of power just as its mining sector is poised to help lead an economic revival.

Thunder Bay GS produces power periodically, when shortages occur. Local officials fear the growing incidence of drought will mean gradually more reliance on the plant as hydro-electric output is reduced during low-water periods. But let’s not buy a costly power plant with local taxes unless we absolutely have to. And we won’t know that until OPA lays out its plans.

Local officials estimate the region will need 1,300 megawatts of power once the new mines are up and running. OPA insists it can double the main line capacity to 600 MW. The Atikokan Generating Station produces around 200 MW, though supplying enough wood pellets to operate it continually would be difficult. Area power dams produce 680 MW; drought serious enough to substantially reduce that amount may occur but not for some time. The Big Thunder wind turbine project will add 32 MW to the local supply.

This scenario provides some 1,500 MW at best, more than enough power for the foreseeable future. It is incumbent upon Energy Minister Chris Bentley to respond to local concerns by ordering OPA to fast-track its report on northern energy.

Hobbs expects to hear from Bentley before year’s end. We concur. And we expect Ontario to continue to provide Northern Ontario with a secure and dependable power supply. Thunder Bay does not need to buy a power plant; it need only insist on the OPA meeting its responsibility for “ensuring an adequate, long-term supply of electricity in Ontario — a critical factor in the province’s continued growth . . .”