Taking the province to task – by Ian Ross (Northern Ontario Business – August 2013)

Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business provides Canadians and international investors with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North. Ian Ross is the editor of Northern Ontario Business ianross@nob.on.ca.

For northwestern Ontario community leaders, if there’s a physical symbol of the glacial pace of provincial power planning, it’s the dormant Thunder Bay Generating Station.

Last November, Ontario Power Generation stopped work on converting the coal-burning plant to natural gas. The final decision whether to resume or not is expected at the end of summer. “Why are they dragging out this decision on Thunder Bay?” asked Hebert, the former general manager of Thunder Bay Hydro.

Frustrated by the province’s inertia, Larry Hebert, now the chairman of Common Voice Energy Task Force, reminded Ontario’s two leading energy planners last month that the mining boom is coming and they need to hurry up on building power infrastructure.

There’s major concern whether new mines will come into production before an East-West transmission corridor is finished and whether the mothballed Thunder Bay Generating Station will be kept in service.

Hebert forced himself onto the agenda of a stakeholder meeting hosted by Ontario Power Authority (OPA) and the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) in Thunder Bay in July.

The OPA-IESO group travelled Ontario this summer gathering advice from municipalities on energy planning.

“Neither they (IESO) nor the OPA, in our opinion, have a plan that’s there that will satisfy (industry) needs,” said Hebert. “Industry is ready to go and here’s the government plodding along.”

Of the 16 potential mines identified in Thunder Bay’s regional mining study, more than half have production dates from 2014 to 2017. Their combined power needs range between 417 and 732 megawatts.

The East-West line is expected to provide a reliable source of electricity, but with its service date scheduled for 2018, many northwestern leaders say that’s way too late to meet the demands of industry. Hebert said the OPA-IESO’s position for months is that many mines likely won’t meet their targeted commercial start date.

“We don’t do any planning for the mines to be onstream until we see the whites of their eyes,” Hebert was told by a senior OPA official, factoring in the labourious environment assessment process and feasibility studies.

But if metal prices and capital markets improved and mines were fast-tracked into production, Hebert said Ontario would have to import power from neighbouring jurisdictions.

With construction of a mine taking between 18 and 24 months, “that’s not enough time to start building transmission.”

Hebert also wants some safeguards against the East-West line should power ever be interrupted along that “long umbilical cord.”

Keeping the Thunder Bay Generating Station online would maintain a diverse mix of generating capacity and will prevent any major blackouts.

Hebert said today’s demand for power in Thunder Bay alone is a very real concern. A cold spell in mid- anuary meant the Thunder Bay

Generating Station ran full-out, producing 167 megawatts every day, because not enough electricity could be sent on the Ontario grid, and hydro power stations were experiencing seasonally low water levels.

Should that occur in 2015 with new mines in production, Hebert said, “this area would be having rotating blackouts in the wintertime. I don’t think that would be acceptable to many people.”