Toronto city council voted against more gas-plant production. The province is making it happen anyway

Toronto Star

By Marco Chown Oved

The twin smokestacks at the Port Lands will be belching out more smoke more often in the coming years, increasing air pollution in downtown Toronto and ramping up carbon emissions, as the gas plant has been given the go-ahead to boost its electricity generation.

And it’s happening in the face of city council’s opposition, despite a provincial pledge to obtain local permission before proceeding. Toronto City Council passed a motion opposing any new natural-gas generation in the city only days before last week’s provincial announcement.

“It’s really unfortunate that they’re just proceeding anyway,” said Coun. Paula Fletcher, who co-wrote the motion. “This is a very large plant and it will be running far more frequently. It’s not really the direction we should be going in the climate crisis.”

When the call went out for new power generation last fall, Energy Minister Todd Smith put an explicit requirement on all proposals, saying they could not proceed without permission from local municipal councils.

“This municipality did not agree,” Fletcher said.

The province had put out an RFP (request for proposal) for more generation, and some existing plants were granted expanded generation under the RFP. But the resulting increased emissions at the Port Lands plant — Toronto’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions — will make it harder for the city to meet its TransformTO pledge to reach net zero by 2040.

Fletcher said it fits into a wider pattern of the province overruling Toronto, from Ontario Place to Ministerial Zoning Orders.

“By now we’ve learned that Premier Ford and his government treats Toronto as an extension of Queen’s Park, where they feel they can do whatever they want,” she said. “Everything that they do flies in the face of the direction that our city has taken.”

The Port Lands is one of six gas plants with planned expansions and upgrades that will provide additional peaking power during the hottest summer days to help curb the province’s anticipated electricity shortfall. The plant has also extended its contract by five years, ensuring gas will remain on the Toronto waterfront until April 2034.

(In addition to the Port Lands, two other GTA gas plants — in Brampton and Halton Hills — will also see capacity upgrades.)

In an email to the Star, Energy Minister spokesperson Michael Dodsworth said the plant expansions in Windsor and Sarnia received support from local councils as promised. But because the upgrades at the GTA plants, characterized as “tune ups,” do not require “new construction,” they’re “consistent with the Minister’s direction.”

The additional gas-fuelled power generation undermines efforts to reduce emissions across the province, said Sarah Buchanan, campaigns director for the Toronto Environmental Alliance.

“We are already facing an uphill battle to meet looming climate change targets,” she said. “One of the biggest hurdles really is just that the grid is getting dirtier when it’s supposed to be getting cleaner.

“It’s really frustrating to see Toronto’s climate plans completely undermined by these energy decisions.”

As demand for power rose and nuclear plants got taken offline, emissions from the Port Lands plant rose from 188,000 tonnes in 2017 to 618,000 tonnes in 2021, according to the federal government’s national inventory of emissions.

The Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) said it expects 200,000 to 400,000 additional tonnes of emissions per year from new gas generation provincewide.

It’s not just a matter of increased carbon emissions, but one of local air pollution, said Ontario Clean Air Alliance Chair Jack Gibbons.

“It’s a fossil fuel plant and it produces pollutants that are harmful to our health,” he said. “Because (the plant operates) to meet our peak demands, it will be ramped up on the hottest summer days, which are also the smoggiest days. It’s making air pollution worse on our worst air pollution days.”

Gibbons noted that prevailing winds in Toronto come from the southwest, blowing the 1,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxides the plant produces annually over Scarborough, where some of the city’s most disadvantaged people live.

Tom Patterson, director of energy management at Atura Power, a wholly owned subsidiary of Ontario Power Generation that runs the Port Lands and Halton Hills gas plants, said the upgrades will make the plants more efficient.

“For substantially the same amount of fuel, we will be getting more power output from the facility,” he said.

Projections by IESO show an increased reliance on gas plants in the coming years, as nuclear plants are taken out of service for refurbishment or retirement.

Soon, they will run not just during peak demand, as they do currently. This year, gas plants are expected to operate 24 per cent of the time. By 2026, that is projected to be 81 per cent. In 2041, it’ll 100 per cent of the time, according to IESO.

Patterson acknowledged that gas plants create carbon emissions, but said they also let other sectors of the economy with bigger carbon footprints decarbonize by switching their operations to electricity.

Electrification of the steel smelters in Sault Ste. Marie, is a good example of this, because electric arc furnaces running on Ontario’s grid — 90 per cent of which comes from non-emitting sources — will replace coal-burning coke ovens.

Patterson said gas peaker plants will likely continue to play a role, even in the federal government’s plan for a net-zero grid by 2035.

“Net zero is an ongoing conversation,” he said. “From our perspective, that doesn’t mean we go to absolute zero on the electricity grid.”

Bryan Purcell, vice-president of policy and programs at The Atmospheric Fund, says keeping gas on the grid as an emergency backup is reasonable, but that’s not what’s happening in Ontario.

“There’s a deepening commitment to ramping up natural gas generation, taking us in the wrong direction,” he said.

Emissions on the grid have more than doubled in the past five years and are on a trajectory to double again by 2033.

“The pace that electricity sector emissions are rising is going to offset a lot of the gains made elsewhere,” he said. “We’re a little further behind every year.”

This article was reposted from the Toronto Star

It was originally published on May 29, 2023