The Toronto Star
July 20, 2014
Jack Gibbons

Ontario should import low-cost hydroelectric power from Quebec
Replacing nuclear power with renewable hydroelectric power from Quebec could save Ontario $600 million a year.

Their highly radioactive waste will linger forever, but the elderly nuclear reactors that provide half of Ontario’s electricity will soon reach the end of their lives. And the task of rebuilding them, currently in the planning stages, will almost certainly burden the fiscally crippled province with even more debt while electricity prices maintain their steeply upward trajectory for decades to come.

As an alternative, letting the oldest reactors die and replacing their output with clean, renewable water power from Quebec could save Ontario $600 million a year in foregone nuclear costs — beginning as soon as the two neighbours decide to end the electricity separatism that has traditionally stood in the way of such a logical and mutually beneficial hookup.

Quebec is the fourth-largest producer of hydroelectric power in the world and its electricity rates are among the lowest in North America. Its residential rates are 45 per cent lower than ours and its industrial rates are 55 per cent lower. In recent years, the province has produced far more cheap, clean electricity than it can use itself.

Meanwhile, its next-door neighbour, Ontario, is struggling with some of the highest power costs in the country and facing a minimum $13-billion bill to refurbish the Darlington nuclear reactors. There is already enough transmission capacity linking the two provinces to replace 97 per cent of the power currently produced by Darlington — and a tremendous opportunity to strike a deal that would provide huge economic benefits for both provinces.

Hydro Quebec currently exports power to New England at rates as low as three cents per kilowatt-hour. Planners for the Darlington refurbishment estimate that the project will result in power at a cost of 8.3 cents per kwh. The Ontario Clean Air Alliance calculates that a long-term contract for Quebec water power priced in the middle of that range — 5.7 cents per kWh — will save Ontario $600 million a year over the nuclear alternative.

Those savings assume the Darlington rebuild will be completed on time and on budget — something that has never happened in the history of the Canadian nuclear industry. On average, nuclear projects have gone 2.5 times over budget. The first phase of Darlington was 4.5 times over budget. So the actual savings of replacing Darlington’s inflexible and dangerous nuclear power with clean and reliable water power is likely to be in excess of a billion dollars a year.

Low-cost water power from Quebec is a bargain we simply can’t afford to refuse — especially in light of the Wynne government’s major spending commitments, which have already caused Moody’s credit rating agency to issue a warning on Ontario’s debt. When combined with energy conservation and made-in-Ontario green energy, it can quickly move us to a 100 per cent renewable energy grid.

It’s no mystery why Ontario has never before signed a long-term contract to import water power from Quebec: successive Ontario governments have for decades clung to a misguided industrial strategy that was supposed to provide Ontario with nuclear power “too cheap to meter” while creating jobs from the export of Candu reactors. Today, it is clear that nuclear energy is extremely expensive — the reason our rates are so high — and the Candu reactor is obsolete. There hasn’t been an export sale in decades.

In Ontario, a very powerful nuclear special-interest lobby has promoted electricity separatism because it knows nuclear can’t compete with low-cost water power from Quebec. The latter is a superior product by every metric.

Given a choice, virtually everyone in Ontario who isn’t part of the nuclear industry says they prefer renewable energy and conservation over nuclear power. So when renewable energy is also the lowest-cost option, the choice is a no-brainer.

We already import our natural gas and uranium from western Canada, so why can’t we import clean, low-cost water power from our next-door neighbour? It’s just common sense. It’s good for the economy, it’s good for the environment and it’s good for Canada.

As for those Ontarians currently working in the nuclear industry, they needn’t fear as the failed strategy of the past is abandoned. Their colleagues in the coal plants that were phased out for equally valid reasons had no complaints. Ontario Power Generation has many sins, but mistreating its employees is not one of them.

Jack Gibbons is chair of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance.