Apr 12, 2021
Did you know that it wasn’t too long ago that coal represented 25% of Ontario’s energy supply mix? This toxic energy source caused a host of damaging environmental and public health problems. Thankfully, in 2014, Ontario was the first jurisdiction in North America to eliminate coal as a source of electricity production. Climate change and transportation policy analyst at David Suzuki Foundation, Gideon Forman joins us to chat about coal, how Ontario transitioned away from it, and what’s next for Canada on the road to cleaner energy.
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Dan Seguin 00:02
Hey, everyone, welcome back to another episode of The ThinkEnergy podcast. Today I'd like to talk to you about smog warnings, acid rain, air pollution. In other words, the early 2000s in Ontario, coal fired power plants have been linked to a host of damaging environmental problems. But coal also causes a lot of public health issues with links to asthma, cancer, neurological problems, and other hearts and lung illnesses. Back in 2003, 25% of electricity in Ontario came from coal plants. Did you know coal emissions were a major source of air pollution that contributed to 53 smog days in Ontario alone in 2005. That same year, my great city of Ottawa had 25. For those that may not know, smog days would be declared in the province on days when the air wasn't as safe to breathe due to the amount of toxins in the air. In 2014, Ontario was the first jurisdiction in North America to completely eliminate coal as a source of electricity production. According to Air Quality Ontario, the province phase out of coal has been considered to have achieved the most significant results of any climate change initiative in North America to date. Now, today 94% of electricity generated in Ontario is emission free, and those smog advisories are all but a thing of the past. There's no doubt that Ontario has been a leader in fighting climate change and investing in cleaner energy sources. By 2030, Canada will phase out traditional coal fired electricity in the country altogether, striving to have 90% of electricity from non emitting sources, and simultaneously cutting carbon pollution from the electricity sector by 12.8 million tons. So here's today's big question: Although it wasn't that long ago that coal made up a quarter of Ontario's electricity supply, I feel the story of how it was achieved has been lost somehow. So how did Ontario break ahead of the pack in North America to decommission coal plants? And what does that mean for our future in the renewable energy space? joining me on today's show is Gideon Forman on climate change and transportation policy analyst from the David Suzuki foundation. Gideon has a Master's of art and philosophy from McGill University and a certificate in renewable energy from the University of Toronto. He has been awarded the Queen Elizabeth to Diamond Jubilee Medal and is a former executive director for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. Hey, Gideon, thanks so much for joining us today. Perhaps you can start by telling us a bit about yourself, your background, and what keeps you passionate about your work.
Gideon Forman 04:05
Thanks, Dan. Yes, I've worked in the environmental movement for I guess about 20 years now. Gosh, I guess that's right. But it's been a long time. I work with the David Suzuki Foundation, now. For the last five years I've worked with David Suzuki, which has been wonderful. But before that for 10 years, 11 years actually, I was with a group called Physicians for the Environment, a group of wonderful doctors across Canada using their credibility and their scientific smarts as doctors to push for stronger environmental legislation. And with the Physicians for the Environment Group. We worked on issues like pesticides trying to ban lawn and garden pesticides primarily to protect kids health. And we did a lot of work on the coal phase out in Ontario and ramping up renewable energy. So I have some familiarity with that I'm not a doctor myself, but I loved working with doctors and it was wonderful to see the the influence that doctors had on the environmental debate. For the last five years since june 2015 almost six years now i've been with the david suzuki foundation worked on a number of different things but my major work now is around transportation - trying primarily to give people alternatives to the car really that's what my work is in a nutshell: walking, cycling, public transit these sorts of things so they can leave the car at home and move around in a more sustainable way.
Dan Seguin 05:24
i have a question for you what is coal exactly can you give us some background around why it was used as an energy source and why it made up such a large portion of our provincial supply mix until recent decades
Gideon Forman 05:41
Coal, at its most basic is decayed plant matter ancient ancient decayed plant matter that's been under pressure and is formed into a mass of hard typically black or brown mass it's mostly carbon and it's been used until relatively recently because it's cheap and often quite accessible. Unfortunately it's still used in many parts of the world it was used in ontario to produce electricity till 2014 we'll have more chance to talk about that but the short answer is that it was cheap you could throw it into the furnace and burn it and it created a lot of heat and drove generators there were lots of terrible problems with it but it was accessible and cheap.
Dan Seguin 06:25
Gideon some of us folks remember the days when acid rain and smog or irregular occurrence were these weather advisories a primary consequence of our coal usage and if so, how? Also what other impacts was it having on the environment and the health impacts on residents of ontario?
Gideon Forman 06:51
Yeah so certainly the coal plants were a big factor in smog and acid rain. They weren't the only factor cars and trucks and other sources of fossil fuel combustion were also a problem but the coal plants were a big problem. The coal plants in Ontario contributed of course and coal plants from other parts of north america primarily the midwestern us they were big contributors to our acid rain and our smog so that's that was very much an issue. In terms of the impacts the biggest impact that we talked about now is the climate impact the coal plants at their height were the equivalent of millions of cars on our roads when we took the coal plants out it was like removing 6 million cars from ontario's roads so they were a very very significant source of greenhouse gases and they also produced other things that were toxic things like mercury for example and arsenic so they were also a significant source of human health problems they made asthma worse, what they call the particulate matter in smog some of that came from coal plants and particulate matter is a factor in lung cancer so a number of different ailments were connected to the coal plants
Dan Seguin 08:10
Now in a nutshell what was the case for eliminating coal fired electricity in ontario and who led it? Also was there backlash in 2003 when ontario announced it was closing the provinces for remaining coal fired plant if so what kind of backlash was there?
Gideon Forman 08:33
okay that's a number of questions so the case for closing the coal plants was that they were just a massive massive source of greenhouse gas emissions and other contributors to pollution things like nitrous oxides and sulfur oxide sulfur dioxide so they were contributing to climate change they were contributing to acid rain and they were contributing to human illness on a very big scale and the other reason that it made sense to close them was it was something doable. In ontario because they were publicly owned, there was an opportunity to do it in quite a a rapid and efficient manner you know in many places coal plants are privately owned - in the united states for example and so if they're privately owned it's very difficult to close them quickly there's all sorts of issues around compensation and government has to step in it can be very complicated legally but, in ontario, all the coal plants were owned by the government of ontario so the government of ontario could close them basically through the stroke of a pen and that's what happened it was over a number of years but that's what happened the Ontario government decided that, by 2014, they would no longer be coal used to produce electricity in the province and that's what happened so it was a matter of something that would have huge impact and that was doable that was kind of the thinking behind it. In terms of backlash, there wasn't a lot of backlash. There were some who raised concerns about the transition, loss of jobs for workers in the coal plants. There were some questions about electricity supply. But for the most part, I think there was a lot of public acceptance that we had to get off coal, this was something really good to do from an air quality point of view. And increasingly, from a climate change point of view. In terms of who drove the coal phase out, a lot of it was pushed by health professionals: the Ontario Medical Association, doctors, including some of the doctors that I worked with, in physicians for the environment, nurses, Ontario public health officials, medical officers of health, these sorts of people and family physicians, these sorts of people saw firsthand the effect of smog, of bad air on people's lives. And they talked openly about it. And so was very much driven, I think, by the health professionals. I remember one time, Dan, when I was working with the physicians for environment, we we arranged a meeting to meet with the Minister of Environment for the province of Ontario, and I brought in doctors, I brought in nurses, and we had an opportunity to talk across the table with the minister. And it was just fascinating for the minister to see firsthand the effect of coal on people's lives in a very direct way. I remember one of our doctors from Kingston, she said, you know, Minister, there are times when the weather when the air quality is so poor, that my patients can't go outside, and I really worry for them. And if you're close the coal plants, this would make a huge difference in the lives of my patients. And you could see the minister really connecting with that at a very human level. So it wasn't just an abstraction for our doctors. And so I think that was one of the driving forces behind the coal plant phase out.
Dan Seguin 11:54
I understand coal was reduced in stages between 2003 and 2014. To ensure system reliability, get in, do you know, what were some of the challenges? And where did they make up the shortfall in generation? Has it been renewable energy? Was it a smooth transition? What investments or strategies were put in place to make sure it succeeded?
Gideon Forman 12:24
Yes, I think the short answer is that it was a smooth transition. I mean, it was over 11 years. So it wasn't like someone, you know, flipped a switch. And it ended overnight, it was carefully done thoughtfully done over more than a decade. I think that the the ability of the province to move off coal was a fact was it was a function of a couple of things. So first of all, the doctors and the nurses, as I mentioned, I think prepared the public explained the case for going off coal. So I think you had a public that was very supportive of the phase out of coal. I think that was one factor. The other factor is that while coal represented 25% of the electricity grid, it wasn't so massive, an amount that it was impossible to do. I think it was, it was a stretch. But it was something that was technically possible to do. It wasn't like we were having it's not like our grid was 100% coal, and we were trying to get off for 100% coal. It was 25%, Dan. And that's a very significant amount, but it was also doable. So I think that's important to say. The the other pieces that they brought in the entire government brought in some of the other parts of our electricity grid, and ramp them up. So they refurbish the Bruce Nuclear plants so that a couple of those units came back. And that was helpful in in the transition. They put in some natural gas. And that's problematic. We can talk about that in a little while, but but they did ramp up natural gas, what they call peaker plants for the peak use of electricity. They did bring in a little bit more hydro power. And the biggest. And the biggest are in terms of in my view, the most exciting part of the transition was renewable energy. And so that was quite an effort in those years from 2003 to 2014. To ramp up renewable energy, particularly wind and solar power, wind and solar are still relatively small amounts of the of the grid. In 2014, it was about 7% came from wind and solar. But that was also one of the things that allowed us to get off coal. So it was a combination of those things, some more nuclear, some some renewables and some natural gas, and also more of an emphasis on conservation so that we reduce demand.
Dan Seguin 14:53
Let's move on to the next question. decommissioning coal plants and investing in renewable energy comes at a cost. What kind of impact did this have on Ontario's electricity rates? According to the most recent comparison stats, I have Ontario's electricity rates are the fourth lowest in the country. In your mind, were fears justified or just overblown?
Gideon Forman 15:20
Oh, yes, there was quite a bit of nonsense about how expensive and I put that in quotation marks, renewables are, first of all, then the cost of renewables has dropped dramatically. Between 2012 and 2016, in Ontario, the cost of solar, for example, went down by about 50%. And this is part of a worldwide trend. And it's not just for me, I mean, don't take our word for it. If you look at the OECD statistics, just in general, the cost of wind and solar have dropped very, very precipitously, very sharp drop in the cost of wind, and solar in particular. And it's not surprising, once you put wind and solar in once you put in the solar panels or build the windmills, the fuel, if you will, which is wind and sunlight are free. So it's not so surprising that you know, hello, renewables are not expensive. The other reason why we had such confidence in renewables in terms of cost, was it some of the strongest economies in the world, were embracing renewables. And I'm thinking, for example of Germany. Germany's gone into renewables, much of it wind and solar in a very big way, very powerful industrial economy. And yet, they've been able to make very significant advances in wind and solar to the point where a very significant amount of their whole grid is now renewable. So we never had any concerns about the cost. There's always some initial costs when you're moving to something new. But those would be more than compensated for by just the fact that renewables were so inexpensive to run. So we were never concerned about that. The other side of the equation is that as we got off coal, we were also saving money. Don't forget, there's a lot of costs, dollar costs, in acid rain in destroying lakes, destroying our natural world, there's a lot of costs in harming people's health, right? If you've got 1000s of people who have asthma that's gotten worse or other illnesses connected with bad air, that's a cost as well. And of course, climate change is the perhaps the ultimate cost. So by phasing out coal fired power, we were saving money. And by ramping up renewables, we were also saving money. So in terms of just dollars, yes, it made a lot of sense.
Dan Seguin 17:34
Now, with the removal of coal from Ontario supply mix, is gas next? what are some easy wins or long term solutions that will take Ontario's or Canada's energy transformation to the next level?
Gideon Forman 17:51
So one of the things, no question, that allowed us to get off coal was natural gas. And at the time, people saw natural gas as what we call kind of a transition fuel. You know, many in the environmental movement said it was a bridge, you know, we want to get to 100% renewables, we can't do that right away. So we need to move off coal, ramp up natural gas, at least in the short term. I think unfortunately, now that that was probably a mistake to think that natural gas was a bridge. Natural gas is a fossil fuel. And although in some ways it's better than coal, it's still very problematic. The production of natural gas, we have what are called fugitive emissions where methane leaks, when you extract the natural gas, that's a big problem. And then, of course, when you burn the natural gas, in a home or when you burn it into an electricity plant, you're producing greenhouse gases. So we have some real concerns about natural gas, and electricity production. Where we need to be over time is renewables. I think the good news is that there's a lot of solar resource in Ontario, there's a lot of wind in Ontario, we can probably get some more from a little bit more from hydro, and that has to be done properly. But we can probably get a little bit more from Ontario, on terms of hydro. But I think one of the biggest things that we can draw on Dan, to get to 100% renewables is getting water power from other provinces. One of the things that we've talked about is buying more hydro power, water power from Quebec, Quebec has a huge hydro resource, as you know, and a lot of it's sold to American customers. That's understandable. But we could also buy much more of it here in Ontario. And so we think that between a combination of more wind and solar and buying hydro from Quebec, combined with more conservation, we really need to drive down our demand. We think between those factors over time, we could have a 100% renewable grid. That's when we think we need to be
Dan Seguin 19:56
Gideon wondering if you could share with us what our The biggest challenges or obstacles we are facing now, in order to improve how we source energy in a post coal energy world, what is needed to overcome these?
Gideon Forman 20:15
I think we probably have to stop calling natural gas, natural gas, you know, the word natural gas makes it sound like it's all just delightful, right? It's like organic, organic fruits and vegetables, natural gas is a fossil fuel. And we have to remember that. And I think we have to put the climate crisis front and center. And one of the things that's getting in the way of that is this belief that, you know, that natural gas is, is reasonable, both for producing electricity and for heating our homes, we do overtime have to move away from those things. Those are big challenges. We also have concerns with nuclear. I mean, there's concerns about cost of nuclear, it's getting increasingly expensive. There's concerns about what we do with the nuclear waste. I mean, I don't know what community in Canada that particularly wants to house nuclear waste in its community. And I understand that, you know, we don't have a really long term, solid solution for nuclear waste anywhere on the planet that I'm aware of. So that's a very big concern. communities don't want that waste. And even if we're able to store it for, say, 500 years or 1000 years, some of that nuclear waste is radioactive for hundreds of 1000s of years. So that's a big problem. So I don't think nuclear is a long term solution as well, that's that's our view. But there are some that think that and so I think that that's another obstacle that we have to that we have to confront as well, those who think that nuclear is a climate solution, I my own view is that it's not a long term solution. The other piece that we have to remember around nuclear is that you have to mine for the uranium, the uranium that is used to fire the nuclear plant comes out of the earth, and you have to mined for it and the mining of uranium is itself very carbon intensive, you have to use very heavy machinery that burns diesel fuel to get it that uranium. And so the claims that are made about nuclear being, you know, completely clean and green, we believe are not accurate. So, but there is this belief that nuclear is emissions free. And so I think that's one of the obstacles as well.
Dan Seguin 22:25
Well, you've given us a picture of success and how we've managed to overcome these challenges of removing coal from our provincial supply mix. Ontario's electricity supply is expected to evolve over the next few decades as industry and consumers needs change. Gideon, what do you think the future holds? And what would you like to see?
Gideon Forman 22:52
Well, I think the future really doesforesee much more in the way of renewables. I mean, what's really exciting about renewable energy is twofold. In my view, first of all, we're seeing major economies I mentioned Germany, but it's also places like Britain, Scandinavia, China, these large economies are increasingly powering themselves with renewables, much of it wind and solar. I'm not saying that they're at 100% yet, but it is astounding just how much of it is now powered by renewable energy. So that suggests to me that it's really practical for a country like ours, which has a relatively small population, and a huge wind and solar resource to be able to power ourselves 100% renewable. I mean, I think for example, on the prairies, southern Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan. It's just a world class solar and wind resource. I mean, in Saskatchewan, for example, Regina is the is the sunniest capital in Canada. saskatoons motto is Saskatoon shines? Well, that's because there's an enormous amount of solar power on those Southern prairie regions. And so that suggests to me that if we wanted to, we really could power most, if not all of our electricity needs with renewables. So that's one thing that's very encouraging to me, and I'd like to see in the future, and the other piece is just the cost that I mentioned, but I think it really is important to to reiterate it is that the cost is so favorable with renewable energy, so it's practical, and it's something we can afford to do. Okay, Gideon,
Dan Seguin 24:25
are you ready to close this off with some rapid fire questions?
Dan Seguin 24:30
What is your favorite word?
Gideon Forman 24:34
My favorite word is imagination and creativity. Sorry, two words creativity and imagination.
Dan Seguin 24:39
Now, what is the one thing you can't live without?
Gideon Forman 24:43
I don't think I could live without my kids.
Dan Seguin 24:45
What habit or hobby. Have you picked up during shelter in place?
Gideon Forman 24:51
I do a lot more bike riding now. Actually. Yeah, yeah, I used to be much more of a walker. But now I'm a big cyclist.
Dan Seguin 24:58
If you could have one superpower. Would it be
Gideon Forman 25:02
just to be more chill just to be a bit more calm? I'd love to have the superpower just to be able to call myself immediately.
Dan Seguin 25:10
If you could turn back time and talk to your 18 year old self, what would you tell him?
Gideon Forman 25:16
Well, I think I'd probably say, Excuse me, I think I'd probably say to my 18 year old self experiment a bit more, you know, try a few more things that are a bit out of your comfort zone. Yeah, I think I was a bit too cautious as a teenager.
Dan Seguin 25:30
And lastly, what do you currently find most interesting in your sector?
Gideon Forman 25:36
Well, the thing I find most interesting and also most exciting is the youth climate movement. The the young people under Greta tunberg. And other young people, not just Greta, the sweetest young woman but the the the worldwide youth climate movement, young people saying we have to take action on climate change and getting out in the streets. I found that really impressive and really moving.
Dan Seguin 26:01
Well, Gideon, we've reached the end of another episode of The think energy podcasts. Again, I want to thank you so much for joining us today. I hope you had a lot of fun.
Gideon Forman 26:12
Yeah, thank you so much. It was great chance to relive those days of the coal phase out. Thank you.
Dan Seguin 26:20
Thank you for joining us today. I truly hope you enjoyed this episode of The think energy podcast. For past episodes, make sure you visit our website hydro ottawa.com backslash podcast. Lastly, if you found value in this podcast, be sure to subscribe. Anyway, this podcast is a wrap. Cheers, everyone.