The Toronto Star
January 8, 2013
John Spears

Ontario energy conservation moving slowly, says environment commissioner 

The Ontario government should widen the gap between high-priced and low-priced electricity under its time-of-use pricing system, says environment commissioner Gord Miller.

It’s one of the tools needed to create a better culture of conservation in the province, Miller said in a report to the government.

So far, Miller said, the government has spent more time building new generation than it has thinking about how to save it. Yet it only costs about 3 cents a kilowatt hour to save power – far less than the cost of building any new form of generation.

Currently, the peak rate for power is 11.8 cents a kilowatt hour – slightly less than two times the off-peak rate of 6.3 cents.

Consumers who don’t have fixed-rate electricity contracts pay higher rates for power during high-use daytime and evening periods, and lower rates on weekends and overnight.

Miller said the peak rate should be three times, or even five times the off-peak rate in order to drive consumers to conserve during periods of high demand.

“We would all save money, we would save on having to build new capital and infrastructure,” he said.

Ontario has sometimes struggled to meet demand on very hot days, forcing it to build costly generators that operate only a few hours per day, during a few months of the year.

Miller gave credit to the government for mounting measures that, in 2011, conserved 605 million kilowatt hours of power – enough to power a city of 60,000 homes, or roughly the size of Barrie.

But he said the province needs to demonstrate a long-term commitment to conservation to push efforts further.

“How can we possibly ignore this?” Miller told reporters. “We’re fascinated by the price of electricity. (Conservation) involves no disturbance of anybody’s land or anybody’s home, and it’s readily available.”

Miller said the province has some readily available ways of conserving energy, or making more use of existing energy.

For example, he said, thermal generating stations such as natural gas-fired generators, or nuclear reactors that use heat to produce power, vent a lot of waste heat into the air or water.

In many other parts of the world, that heat is captured and used in district heating systems to reduce the need for other forms of heating.

Schools could also become more energy efficient, he said. They spend about $340 million a year on heating and electricity.

The Simcoe County District School Board, for example, has trimmed $500,000 a year from its energy bill by becoming more efficient, he said.

Energy minister Chris Bentley agreed that longer-term conservation programs are needed, and said he’s asked the Ontario Power Authority and the Independent Electricity System Operator to study what needs to be done.

“I agree with the premise – something needs to follow – and we’re on it,” he said in an interview.

Bentley wasn’t ready to endorse widening the gap between peak and off-peak prices, however.

The Ontario Energy Board has widened the spread over the past year, Bentley said. But he noted that not all consumers can shift their usage to off-peak time.

“I’m always mindful of what we need to do to assist them,” he said.

Conservative environment critic Michael Harris was also reluctant to endorse widening the spread between peak and off-peak rates, if it means increasing peak rates.

“Hydro bills are expensive enough as it is,” he said, blaming renewable power contracts for the increase in electricity prices.

Harris criticized the Liberal leadership candidate for ignoring energy conservation in their campaigns to replace Dalton McGuinty.

Peter Tabuns of the New Democrats said the Liberals have “dropped the ball” on conservation.

“It’s time for us to actually start investing in conservation and saving money so that people can afford the high expenses they face these days,” he said.

Tabuns wouldn’t immediately endorse widening the gap between peak and off-peak power.

Before that happens, the province should give homeowners some help to make their dwellings more energy efficient, he said.

“People already have an awful lot of stick. They need some carrot before we’re going to go forward on this.”

Jack Gibbons, who heads the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, said Ontario spends $36 on new energy supplies for every $1 it invests in conservation.

“It’s totally unbalanced,” he said.

Heavy spending on nuclear energy instead of conservation is the primary factor skewing the balance, Gibbons said.