The provincial government of Ontario, Canada has shown that, with the appropriate legislative support along with some conservation effort on behalf of Canadian citizens themselves, an industrialized modern economy can operate successfully without the need for coal-derived electrical power. Following Ontario’s Green Energy Act initially introduced in 2003, coal’s role in Ontario’s electricity generation has shrunk from 25% of total electric power sources the year it was instated, to a mere 1% this year. It is projected that, by the end of 2014, every last coal-fired power facility will be shut down, marking the most substantial greenhouse gas (GHG)-reducing initiative in North America at this time. Already, Ontario is gathering data showing the fruits of its labors, with a 93% drop in sulphur dioxide emissions and an 85% drop in nitrogen oxide emissions since 2003 .
How can this be possible? How can a province of close to 13 million inhabitants thrive without one of the most frequently used and widely abundant natural fuel sources on the planet? “Several dynamics like increased natural gas generation and Ontario owning its own coal plants have helped the initiative, but an aggressive 2009 renewables and energy efficiency law made it possible” . Ontario’s government provided measures, such as tariffs, which regulated the prices of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, making them competitive with conventional sources at the time . Also, the local government has subsidized the development of more efficient and extensive transmission lines that would transport energy from the newly constructed power plants to Canadian homes. Local conservation initiatives have also lowered overall per capita consumption in Ontario, allowing the province to lower its overall power demand by 1,700 megawatts; the equivalent of removing half a million homes from the grid .
So if Ontario has experienced so much success through local initiatives and energy price ‘regulation’, why is a place like Germany having such a hard time? Angela Merkel, Germany’s current running chancellor, has made it a primary objective in her energy agenda to do away with non-renewable energy sources. She has begun to phase out some of the nation’s foremost energy producers originally fueled by coal or nuclear, with heavy consequences on current energy prices and availability . In an attempt to approach their energy economy in a similar manner to the path taken by the Canadians, Germany has instead taken a considerably more ambitious approach by trying to tackle the non-sustainability of nuclear power and coal power at the same time. In a country of more than 6 times the population of Ontario, it is becoming clear that this energy transition, or Energiewende as known to Angela Merkel, is not going to be quite as smooth as we’ve seen in Ontario.
Below we can compare the current sources of electricity production, notably not TOTAL energy production, of the two localities.
We observe that, together, coal and nuclear energy represent over 60% of Germany’s current electricity generation sources . It becomes obvious that doing away with both coal and nuclear simultaneously, with the intention of relying on inherently unstable sources such as wind and solar to cover the region’s baseload will prove extremely difficult. To add more complexity to the situation, regional complications arise when certain parts of the country are more difficult to reach with the newly developed ‘green’ energy. With recent cutbacks in nuclear power, parts of Southern Germany have seen rolling power shortages due to lack of transmission infrastructure which would bring the new power being produced near the sea in the North. These parts of the country tend to rely much more heavily on locally available coal and nuclear resources, and will prove very difficult to power using renewable sources, alone .
It seems there’s a lot to learn from the successes and struggles of our neighbors. Ontario’s story has played an invaluable role in showing the global community that, with collaborative effort between a government and its citizens, we may have more control over our energy mix than we might have thought. They’ve showed us that we can change the place we live in for the better by manipulating the way we get our energy. However, we are also reminded by the Germans what a significant role non-renewable sources such as coal and nuclear energy have played in arriving at the standard of living we enjoy today. Renewable energy is clearly going to play a key role in our future energy mix, but caution must be taken in our approach to a new energy future to ensure that our path remain sustainable both economically and technologically.