Two recent votes on proposed gas plant expansions in Ontario show the powerful potential for city councils to make the right choices on the road to a low-carbon future. But only if they get the facts and data they need to support their decisions.
Last November 28, the City of Brampton received two energy supply options from energy company Capital Power: they could either deepen their dependency on natural gas, or use batteries to better manage the peaks and valleys of local electricity demand. Brampton chose the battery storage system.
On January 16, the City of Windsor endorsed Capital Power’s proposal to add two new gas turbines totaling 100 megawatts to an existing local power plant.
The similarities between the cities are striking: they both face constraints in the amount of grid power available to them, and they were both looking for new capacity.
Both councils looked at similar evidence for and against building new gas plants in the midst of a climate emergency. Both had their communities’ best interests at heart as they weighed the available evidence and reached opposite conclusions.
The big difference was in the evidence they had available to them.
In Brampton, Capital Power and its battery storage partner, Alectra Utilities, presented two options: expand the existing gas plant, or install battery storage.
In Windsor, the company presented gas as the only option and warned that the community could face power shortages if council delayed or did not endorse the deal. That issue resonated with elected officials looking ahead to future economic development, including a new electric vehicle battery plant that would rely on a stable, reliable power supply.
“The question is really simple. Do you want power in the city of Windsor in the county of Essex to be able to grow our region and provide the power that’s required?” asked Mayor Drew Dilkens. “If the answer is yes, we have to support these types of applications.”
Those concerns were legitimate and would make any leader wary of turning such a proposal down. The availability of reliable and affordable electricity is crucial to a region looking to accommodate a growing population while attracting new investments. But to make a fully informed choice—to decide whether a gas plant was really the best choice—councillors would have needed more and better information on:
- The cost of all the available options, including battery storage;
- A comparison of other community benefits, such as how many related jobs and profits would remain in the local community, and how the project affects public health and climate change;
- The extent to which Windsor could have turned to energy efficiency, demand response, and other options to reduce its peak power consumption and ease the pressure for new supply;
- Whether energy storage paired with solar or wind production would match or improve on the cost and performance of a new gas plant and better meet the community’s longer-term energy needs.
These and other critically important issues are addressed in a flurry of recent reports issued by TAF, Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, and Clean Energy Canada. They all point to a wider range of options that are practical and affordable, and should be factored into any decision on new gas plant construction—whichever way that decision eventually goes.
But even with multiple reports in hand, it’s often unrealistic to ask municipal staff, with limited time and often no background in the technical intricacies of electric power generation, to make a fully informed recommendation. And the complexities can’t and won’t be addressed when a city council is handed a short deadline to decide on energy infrastructure that is meant to operate for decades.
Councils have to rely on their outside advisors and project proponents to give them a diligent, complete picture of the options available to them. The Brampton experience showed what happens when that relationship works well. The Windsor decision, less so. We’re monitoring upcoming energy investment proposals in the GTHA and will support councils to ensure they have the evidence to inform good decisions. Stay tuned.