July 5-12, 2004

Power workers urge more detailed review of planned Ontario coal plant phase-out

A study recently released in Toronto by the Power Workers' Union (PWU) says the Ontario government should re-examine - and perhaps defer - its plan to phase out coal-fired power plants by 2007. These facilities, it says, have a far less significant impact on air quality and human health than other emission sources such as transportation.

PWU president Don MacKinnon points out that Ontario's coal-fired power plants account for 25% of the electricity generation capacity in the province. Gas-fired generation is the only technology capable of quickly replacing these units, though not by 2007, he says, adding that while conservation initiatives and renewables can play a major role in reducing future consumption, they cannot fully offset the coal-fired capacity.

Citing recent and projected increases in natural gas costs, and the overall volatility of gas prices, MacKinnon says replacing coal-fired plants with gas would increase natural gas consumption in Ontario by 35%, driving up both gas and electricity rates. Closing the province's coal-fired plants and vastly increasing reliance on natural gas, a fuel subject to volatility in both price and supply, will put Ontario at a serious economic disadvantage relative to the U.S., which relies heavily on coal-fired electricity generation and has hundreds of years' worth of coal supply.

An alternative option, says the PWU, would be to make Ontario's coal-fired plants world showcases for cleaner coal technology. The technology for reducing emissions from coal-fired plants exists, ranging from the catalytic reduction abatement technology already installed on a few Ontario units to newer circulating fluidized bed combustor systems. Cleaner coal plants are already a major electricity source in progressive jurisdictions like Sweden and Denmark, and equipment could be installed in Ontario coal-fired plants to reduce sulfur dioxide (SO2) and particulate emissions by more than 99%, nitrogen oxide (NOX) by more than 90%, and mercury by 75 to 90%.

The time to retrofit this technology on the existing units in Ontario would be the same as that required to build gas plants, adds the study, noting that the cost differential between gas and cleaner coal is huge. A recent electricity price comparison study found that cleaner coal technology would increase prices by 3% while a shift to natural gas to produce the same amount of electricity would increase prices by at least 20% to 25%, and potentially much more.

The study points out that Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has called for stricter controls on emissions from American coal-fired plants which, it is acknowledged, account for at least half of the smog-creating pollutants in Ontario. He has not called for the U.S. plants to be closed, however, as this would not be realistic. Accordingly, the PWU questions the advantage of closing Ontario coal-fired plants while simultaneously arguing for controlling emissions on U.S. plants. The study suggests that Ontario has more to gain by making its facilities showcases for cleaner coal technology. This would give the province the high ground over the U.S. in pushing for reduced emissions and improved air quality.

The PWU study cites the findings of Dr Ross McKitrick, an associate professor of economics at the University of Guelph, who concluded, based on a careful review of the scientific evidence, that power plants play a small role in Ontario air quality and have little impact on severe air quality episodes. Contrary to the public perception, he found that the air quality in Ontario has improved significantly since the early 1970s and that the scientific basis for connecting air pollution at the levels experienced in Ontario with significant disease and mortality is slight.

Based on his review, Dr McKitrick states, "...In light of the substantial economic costs of abandoning the coal component of Ontario's power supply, and the evidence that Ontario's coal plant emissions are unlikely to be the threat to life and health that has been claimed, the Ontario government should put on hold the planned phase-out of the coal power plants by 2007, pending an exhaustive review of the real costs and benefits."

The study, titled "Power Plants, Air Quality and Health: The Case for Re-examining Ontario's Coal Policy," may be viewed on the PWU Web site, www.pwu.ca.

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