Ontario set for delay in energy change

Ontario is set for a further delay in closing its remaining coal-fired power stations, prolonging decades of erratic energy policy in Canada’s most industrialised region.

Coal currently provides about one-fifth of Ontario’s electricity needs. A promise to replace coal with cleaner sources of energy by 2007 was a centerpiece of the ruling Liberal party’s platform when it took office three years ago. The deadline was pushed out last year to 2009.

But the Ontario Power Authority, a government planning agency, recommended on Wednesday that at least some of the remaining four coal-powered stations should remain open until 2014.

According to the authority, the further delay is needed to ensure reliable supply in case the province fails to meet its ambitious conservation targets, or runs into fresh delays in bringing extra nuclear power, hydro-electric projects and other forms of renewable energy on stream.

In addition, the biggest coal-fired power station is located in an area north of Lake Erie where electricity demand is growing strongly.

Energy policy has long been heavily politicised. Turmoil intensified after a former Conservative government broke up Ontario Hydro, a long-standing monopoly, in 1998 as a first step towards market-related pricing and greater private-sector involvement.

Those plans were thrown off track four years later, when the Tories aborted the planned privatisation of the former transmission arm of Ontario Hydro in the face of political protests and a court challenge by trade union and environmental groups.

The government retreated further by imposing a retail price freeze after rates rose sharply during an unusually hot summer.

Private-sector investment in generating facilities has dried up, leaving the authorities scrambling to ensure long-term power supplies. Ontario currently has less domestic generating capacity than in the mid-1990s.

The power authority’s latest recommendation is contained in a preliminary plan to integrate various elements of the province’s power system. The plan is due to be finalised next spring.

The energy minister Dwight Duncan announced a C$800m project earlier this week to import 1,250 megawatts of hydro-electric power from neighbouring Quebec by 2010.

Ontario Power Generation, which has a near-monopoly on electricity supplies, also recently began the process of expanding an existing nuclear station at Darlington, east of Toronto. Regulatory approvals and construction are expected to take about a decade.

While environmentalists have pushed for early closure of the coal stations, business groups and the power industry’s biggest union have urged the government to cut the plants’ emissions by installing modern scrubbing technology.

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