Power CEO generates omissions

Ontario Power General-Coal
Be forthright. If ever there was a rule for chief executives claiming credit for changes, that’s it.
It’s a rule that Ron Osborne, president and CEO of Ontario Power Generation (OPG) recently by-passed when announcing improvements to the three coal-fired electricity generation stations in southern Ontario — the Lakeview plant in Mississauga, the Lambton plant near Sarnia, and the Nanticoke plant near Simcoe.


The improvements « will achieve significant reductions in nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from these three stations,’’ he said. NOx is a primary ingredient of smog, which the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) says this year will kill 1,920 people in Ontario and will cost the Ontario economy and the health care system more than $1 billion in out-of-pocket expenses.


Osborne said selective catalytic reduction equipment will be installed on two units at both Nanticoke and Lambton, and low-NOx burners will be fitted to two units at Lakeview. The cost will be $250 million.


In one sense it might be fair to call the emission reductions significant. They’ll result in a 30.5 per cent drop in NOx emissions. But here are three things that Osborne neglected to mention, and they reveal that the changes are totally inadequate, and so to call them significant is misleading.


Number One: The reduced level of emissions will still leave the plants far short of emission targets set by the U.S. federal Environmental Protection Agency for coal-fired plants in the United States. Even with the improvements, Lakeview’s emissions will remain 3.4 times higher than the U.S. target, Nanticoke’s will remain 2.2 times higher, and Lambton’s will remain 1.8 times higher.


Number Two: The improvements will do nothing to lessen sulphur and mercury emissions. OPG’s coal-fired plants (including the two small plants in Northern Ontario) account for 20 per cent of the sulphur dioxide, and for 21 per cent of the airborne mercury emitted into Ontario’s air.


Number Three: Switching from coal to natural gas at Lakeview, Lambton, and Nanticoke was never mentioned, even though it has become a major public issue and is being urged by the OMA. And even though Premier Mike Harris declared in May that a condition for the sale of Lakeview would be its conversion to natural gas.


The beauty of switching to natural gas is that it would eliminate sulphur and mercury emissions, as well as allowing the three stations to meet the U.S. targets. OPG has resisted a switch, saying that the cost would be too high at $5 billion. But that’s strictly a construction cost. It doesn’t include savings in operating expenses that would come from using natural gas. Coal is cheaper to buy, but coal-fired plants are only 33 per cent efficient. Natural gas plants are more than 50 per cent efficient, which makes them cheaper to operate.


Calculations by the Ontario Clean Air Alliance indicate that the cost of switching, if reduced operating costs were taken into account, would be less than half the $5 billion figure used by OPG, even at the current high price of natural gas.


What makes a commitment to natural gas so important right now is that federal Environment Minister David Anderson is at the final stage of trying to negotiate a smog reduction agreement with the Americans under the Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement. Half of Ontario’s smog comes from American sources.


So far, Anderson has been hamstrung. He has promised Canada will match U.S. standards, but he sits at the table with Ontario’s dirty hands on his shoulders. Ontario has not confirmed that it will go along with the promise, and time is running out. The U.S. federal elections are approaching, and if no agreement is reached beforehand, the post-election result could be delay at best, and full retreat at worst.


Instead of being so self-congratulatory over OPG’s improvements, Osborne would have served OPG and the Ontario public better if he had discussed them within the context of the Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement — and especially if he had made a commitment toward meeting a common air quality standard.

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