Solving the Mystery of the Missing Megawatts: Conservation Killed Them
This isn’t just in the realm of rhetoric. Over the last five years, 8,000 megawatts disappeared from Ontario’s projected energy needs, which means we’re no longer planning to build multi-billion dollar plants.
That’s a lot of power to suddenly not need. It’s more power than all of our coal plants can put out in combination with the massive Pickering B nuclear station (which the government has to decide what to do with this year). And it’s three times the amount of power that would have come out of the proposed new-build nuclear plant, which had a sticker-price of $26 billion.
How did this happen? Well, back in 2004 a panel of top industry experts told the government that we would need about 35,000 MW of electricity in 2018, but that with “aggressive conservation” this could be cut back to 31,000 MW (graph below is from page 23).
WWF and other groups countered that with a focus on cost-effective conservation measures, demand could be knocked back by almost 10,000 MW. This was widely viewed by industry experts as preposterous.
Fast forward to December 2009. Electricity consumption has been dropping since 2005 (i.e. pre-recession) and is projected to continue dropping. And buried on page 10 of the latest report from the agency that manages Ontario’s electrical grid is a new forecast, where the projected demand for electricity in 2018 is now roughly 23,000 MW.
Suddenly, phasing out coal and meeting our needs with renewable energy doesn’t look nearly as difficult as it once did.
Why the change? There are two things at play here. The first is a change in the business-as-usual demand forecast and a belated recognition that the growth rate for electricity has been falling steadily. From about 5.5% in the 1970-1990 period, the growth rate had fallen to virtually zero over the last 20 years due to a combination of the success of conservation programs, ‘natural’ improvements in energy efficiency as old equipment is replaced with newer, more efficient equipment, and structural changes in the provincial economy.
Even with a robust economic recovery, overall demand is now expected to continue to fall – the acknowledgement of which was a big mental hurdle for those who equated things getting bigger with them getting better.
The second factor was that the hands-on experience in delivering conservation programs has shown that they work. To be fair, the lack of faith in the effectiveness of conservation programs in 2004 was perhaps understandable. The provincial government had killed all of the energy conservation programs back in1995, so Ontario didn’t have much experience with them. But after starting to ramp them up in 2004, the government and industry were seeing real, verifiable reductions in the amount of energy used that cost a lot less than building new plants to produce the power.
And so, my dear Watson, the answer to the mystery of the missing 8,000 megawatts is elementary. The idea that we can meet our needs by being smarter about how we use energy rather than simply producing more has gone from being something espoused by environmentalists to become a central part of energy planning.
And if you read through that latest report from the Independent Electricity System Operator, it is full of interesting insights on how we can meet the challenge of greening our electricity system, whereas once such a report would have focused on why this couldn’t be done.
And that is a wonderful thing.