How Ontario quit coal

ontario-plant.jpg(Via Toban Black on Flickr)

Ontario, our friendly neighbor to the north, will soon phase out all of its coal-burning power plants. The last two generators, up the North Shore in Thunder Bay, are set to close next year.

The province faced the same challenges that should sound familiar to us here: communities worrying about job losses and industries worrying about having enough power. So how did they do it?

Yale’s Environment 360 reports:

The transition away from coal also was helped by political and economic circumstances. Unlike the U.S., where miners, producers, truckers, railroads, and utilities form strong regional coal alliances, coal-fired power in Ontario had no other influential political constituencies.

OK, so there’s the politics of it in a nut shell. Here’s the economics of it:

Most of the coal-fired generators were also closed as the U.S. economic meltdown engulfed Ontario’s auto manufacturing sector, North America’s largest producer of vehicles and parts, and one of Ontario’s biggest power consumers. The demand for electricity fell in Ontario, a market that was producing over 35,000 megawatts of generating capacity.

Nuclear has largely taken the place of coal in the province — it now makes up 56 percent of Ontario’s electrical power. Hydropower is responsible for another 22 percent. The region’s air quality has improved as a result.

Overall, mean particulate concentrations in the province’s air fell from 8.1 micrograms per cubic meter in 2003 to 4.8 micrograms per cubic meter in 2010, a 40 percent decline.

How are we doing in Minnesota? A dozen coal plants are being retired or are switching to natural gas by 2016, but the Star Tribune reported in February that the plants are small and account for just 3 percent of the state’s emissions of carbon dioxide:

When the smaller coal plants from Hoyt Lakes to Burnsville to Rochester are gone, Minnesota electric customers still will be getting a major share of their power from a fleet of larger, newer coal plants that utilities plan to keep operating.

Still though, while coal in Minnesota isn’t going away anytime soon, utilities here are diversifying with wind, solar and natural gas, the newspaper reported.

  • Robert Moffitt

    Thanks for this post, Nate. It’s the kind of story I like to see.

    While its true that coal still represents the single largest source of electricity in Minnesota, its slice of the pie is getting smaller each year as the use of renewables and natural gas rises.

    Unlike our neighbors to the north, it is highly unlikely we will build any new nuclear plants (our two nukes provide roughly 24% of our electricity); nor is hydro power likely to be a major factor here (unless we buy it from Canada).

    On the other hand, the growth of wind power in the past five years has been astounding, and solar power is virtually untapped here in Minnesota. I suspect that both wind and natural gas will continue to grow, and we might see the first commercial-scale solar operations open in the next five years.

    We are on track to have 25% of our electric power come from renewable sources by the year 2025 — and many now think we could aim even higher.

    Hats off to Ontario for making the transition away from coal. We are on the same path, it will just take us longer to get there.

  • Beth Mercer-Taylor

    On Earth Day, April 22, Governor Mark Dayton expressed a vision for moving Minnesota beyond coal, albeit by a date uncertain. Youth leaders with him at the Capitol asked that political leaders and business leaders be courageous in their leadership, and make decisions to protect their futures. In no uncertain terms, youth expressed hope for opportunity to work in the clean energy sector, to breath clean air and to conserve the environment they love so much.