Dear Province: Time to shut down Ontario’s dirtiest energy source.

By Gideon Forman
Illustration by Gracia Lam

As you read this column, Ontario is using 18,460 megawatts of electricity. Some of that power is being provided by coal-fired generators, but high-profile health organizations – including the Ontario Lung Association, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario and the Asthma Society of Canada – argue we don’t need the coal plants and claim they could be shut not in 2014, as the government has promised, but this year.

Consider the numbers. While provincial demand is 18,460 megawatts, 21,273 megawatts are generated, including by burning coal. So far so good: we have more power than needed. But would we still have enough if we cut coal out of the supply mix? Yes, we would. The dirty fossil fuel is providing only 1,215 megawatts of electricity. Subtract that from the equation and we still have over 20,000 megawatts – more than enough to keep everything running.

But what about later in the year? After all, our electricity needs are generally greatest in July and August. The peak demand forecast for this summer is as high as 25,861 megawatts. This figure relates to periods of “extreme weather,” but with global warming increasing, extreme weather is no longer rare. Could we remove coal from the power supply mix then? Again, the answer is yes. Ontario’s overall generation capacity is 34,557 megawatts, of which only 4,484 megawatts come from coal. Remove coal, and over 30,000 megawatts still remain – more than enough to keep us going on even the most infernally hot July day.

But what about a few years down the road? If we shutter the coal plants in 2011, will we still have enough power in 2013, 2014 and beyond? Again, yes. According to Ontario’s IESO (Independent Electricity System Operator), the demand trajectory is downward. In other words, by 2015 we’ll probably be using less energy than we are today. We’ll still have those 30,000 megawatts of coal-free power but the projection suggests that, at its peak, the province will consume only about 22,000 megawatts.

But elimination of this dirty black rock is not just practical, it’s morally and environmentally essential. No other fuel so powerfully attacks human and environmental health. In 2010, Ontario’s coal plants were responsible for 316 deaths and over 150,000 cases of illness (e.g., asthma attacks). The plants are major sources of chromium and arsenic (which cause cancer), sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide (which cause acid rain) and lead and mercury (brain poisons). Most alarming of all are the plants’ effects on climate. In a recent article on the issue, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman cites world-renowned scientist James Hansen: “[Hansen] has argued forcefully that most of the climate-change problem comes down to just one thing, burning coal.”

The message couldn’t be clearer. If we’re serious about protecting the earth, we need to start with coal. In Ontario, our responsibility is especially great. Our coal facilities are not only the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the province, but also the single largest source of them in all of North America. Their toxic emissions are equivalent to those released by almost seven million automobiles.

As naturalists, we should not be putting our energy into shouting down windmills (whose imperfections can be overcome through proper siting), but, instead, into putting coal in its coffin. Unlike plants that generate electricity using fossil fuels, wind turbines do not kill people or contribute to cancer, acid rain, brain damage, smog and climate change.

What can we do as individuals and groups? Quite a lot. Because 2011 is an election year, Queen’s Park has indicated it may put the coal phase-out on a fast track, so now is a good time to write Premier McGuinty, thank him for the work he’s already done on this file and urge him to speed it up. Point out that we don’t need to wait until 2014, because we have more than enough power right now that is not produced using coal. And mention that support for fast-tracking the closure comes from the province’s top health experts, including registered nurses, the Ontario Lung Association, and the Ontario College of Family Physicians. Getting government to act quickly is work, but as environmentalists we have no higher calling. Closing these awful plants may well be our generation’s great defining project.

Gideon Forman is executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (