Monday, June 3, 2013

Tilting at windmills, or how to rake in an easy $200 million

Every time Ontario’s environment minister Jim Bradley speaks to the media, he boasts that Ontario now produces 3% of our electricity through wind power and that this has enabled us to close the coal plants (mostly).

This is a half-truth, plus a lie. Ontario does produce 3% of our power from the wind, but that’s been no help in closing coal plants and cutting back on pollution because wind turbines produce electricity we can’t use.

Starting about this time of year, as temperatures soar, everybody turns on their AC and power demand ramps up. Unfortunately, it turns out the wind prefers to blow in the winter – that’s why we have that bone-freezing phenomena known as wind chill.

On hot hazy days, when we need the power, the wind dies. The result? We can’t use 80% of the electricity generated by wind turbines. Instead, Ontario sells it into the North American power grid at the going rate.

Can windmills produce electricity at anything like a competitive rate? Of course not.

So wind power generates almost no usable electricity for Ontario, and we sell it to other people at a loss of $200 million a year. (You can read the whole long sorry analysis here.)

You’d think the Liberals would stop tilting at these windmills. Not only are they useless and expensive, but rural Ontario hates them, and if the Liberals ever want another majority, they need to win back the hinterland.

Unfortunately, Premier Wynn is taking a different tack. To appease rural Ontario, she’s changing the rules so that the municipalities get more say about whether a wind farm gets built in their neighbourhood, coupled with a cash incentive for saying yes.

But why does she want to build more of these things? Why deepen the economic wound? Basically, it’s a sop for Wynne’s core supporters – the Toronto latte leftists who want Ontario to go green and aren’t too fussed about the details, such as whether windmills actually do any good.

But $200 million a year – that’s an expensive vanity project. It’s 10% of the yearly tax increase Wynn wants to slap on Ontarians to pay for transit expansion (more here). How about if we ditch these useless windmills and reduce the tax increase to just $1.8 billion a year?

Who knows, if she pokes about in the budget, maybe Premier Wynne could find a few more projects that waste a couple hundred million. You start adding them up, and pretty soon we’re talking real money.

The good news, by the way, is that we have moth-balled all of Ontario’s coal-powered generating stations (or will have by the end of the year). But coal power has been put out of business through using more gas-fired plants and more nuclear power – which is not something you’ll ever hear the environment minister mention.

But this is still a win because coal plants are a major source of smog, and in Ontario bad air is real danger. In 2008 (most recent figures available), the Ontario Medical Association reports that smog caused 9,800 premature deaths in Ontario.

These victims are mostly older people. Unable to catch a breath, they die from heart failure.

The other typical smog victims are small children. Every summer, Ontario hospitals see tens of thousands of terrified parents showing up in emergency rooms with tortured children who are turning blue from constricted airways.  

You want to make a fortune? Sell inhalers decorated with images of Dora the Explorer or Diego – you’ll knock the competition right out of the market.

But we've cut back on smog from power plants by using hydro, gas and nuclear. The last thing we need is these useless windmills. 

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