Why are we still awaiting [power plant] decision? – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial (Globe and Mail – January 20, 2013)

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

When it comes to meeting Northwestern Ontario’s growing energy needs, “a few months” has become something of a mantra.
There has been a great deal of uncertainty around how to power the North since November, when the provincial government first hit the pause button on the conversion of the Thunder Bay Generating Station from coal to natural gas. The decision came after the Ontario Power Authority stated the region’s energy needs could be better met in other ways. Halting the conversion, the OPA said, would save $400 million.

That claim was enough to cause Energy Minister Chris Bentley to — temporarily — halt the project and tell the OPA “show me.”

That’s fair, as $400 million is no small sum. However, the OPA has yet to show anyone how that money will be saved.
In addition, the timing was unfortunate. The North is sitting on the cusp of a mining boom. Those mines will need energy; a 500-megawatt bump in regional power demand is expected by 2016.

Time, meanwhile, continues to tick toward Dec. 31, 2014, when all coal-fired power generation in Ontario is to stop. Unless Thunder Bay’s plant can somehow be grandfathered and continue burning coal, it will need to shut down if it’s not burning natural gas.

The North needs power. The OPA has repeatedly said it will have enough power, it just has to figure out where it will come from.

To that end, the OPA, the city and Bentley met Thursday for the first of many planned talks on how to meet the region’s power needs. Bentley said a plan will be in place in a few months; it’s the same timeline he gave back in November when the generating station’s conversion was halted.

Powering an entire region is complicated, and it’s understandable that the government and OPA want to make sure they’re doing things right. But the government has had plenty of time already. They’ve known about the coal deadline — they put it in place. Outgoing Premier Dalton McGuinty first proposed it 10 years ago. The Ring of Fire and other mining developments, likewise, have been no secret.

At the very least, the government and OPA should have been at the table in November, as soon as they halted the gas plant conversion, and they should certainly have had numbers and alternatives ready by now.

Perhaps the government simply isn’t taking things seriously. Although listed as attending to take questions, MPP Bill Mauro wasn’t at Thursday’s meeting, despite insisting he’s been fighting to keep the coal plant conversion in his riding going (his cross-town counterpart Michael Gravelle was there).

All the region has to go on is a vague assurance by the OPA that power will be available when it’s needed. Prove it. If the OPA can save taxpayers $400 million while still providing adequate power, prove it. Put the fears to rest and get on with things. The government stands to benefit when those mines are up and running, too.

There is simply no excuse for continued uncertainty and feet-dragging at this stage.