Ontario is struggling to keep up with the demand for electricity in the Windsor region. How will the province deal with electricity and net zero?

People walk along a street in downtown Windsor, Ontario, on September 2, 2011, file photo. In its most recent report, the IESO concluded that “current resources can meet energy requirements in most conditions until the mid-2030s”. But the situation is different in Windsor and Essex County.Jeff Robbins/The Globe and Mail

Reports last month said Windsor, Ont., lost a proposed $2.5 billion chemical plant due to an inability to provide the power it would need, casting a shadow over Ontario’s electricity system.

On April 10, Invest WindsorEssex, a nonprofit, told reporters that it had canceled a meeting on behalf of South Korean chemical giant LG Chem because the company would not be able to get the 10 megawatts of power it would need by late 2024. With in local elections before Just weeks later, opposition parties cited the news as evidence of poor electricity planning by the government. In public statements, Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said that enough power could be provided if LG Chem chose his city.

Neither Invest WindsorEssex nor LG Chem responded to inquiries from The Globe and Mail.

Is Ontario really unable to meet the new demand from a single manufacturing plant? If so, what does that say about the state of the electricity system – and its ability to manage the deep energy transition that so many people depend on?

Officially, there is no looming crisis in the electricity supply. The Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) concluded in its latest planning outlook, published in December, that “existing resources can meet energy requirements under most conditions until the mid-2030s”. Grid-wide demand in Ontario has held steady over the past five years, between 132 and 137 TWh.

But the situation is different in Windsor and Essex County. It is located in the “West London” transmission region, which stretches from London to Windsor, on the US border, and up to Sarnia, on the southern tip of Lake Huron.

“It is totally reasonable [LG Chem] “I just couldn’t get enough of it,” said Rob Karivu, a professor of engineering at the University of Windsor. “Currently, there is a lack of energy available to do large energy operations in this part of the network.”

It’s not that the area lacks obstetric facilities; It is home to several gas-fired power plants and a number of wind farms.

“There is ample supply,” said David Butters, president of the Ontario Energy Producers Association. “But here’s the thing: none of those. [generating facilities] Physically connected to a factory, LG factory, or any other manufacturer. They are connected to the transmission network.”

Observers agree that it is the transmission network, and this is the primary limitation. Connecting large generators in the Sarnia and Windsor area to demand centers, intertwining with Michigan’s power system — and struggling to keep up with rising demand for several years.

In a statement, IESO said strong economic growth in southwestern Ontario is driving “unprecedented” energy demand, which is expected to double again over the next five years.

“This is like adding a city the size of Hamilton to the grid,” a spokesperson Andrew Dow wrote.

A report by IESO in September said the increased demand in Windsor-Essex was driven by agriculture, particularly greenhouses and cannabis growing operations. So many have requested network connections that IESO doubted that the transmission system could handle them all.

The Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association represents 200 growers who grow tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, four-fifths of them in Windsor-Essex. Aaron Koristen, the union’s director of science, regulatory affairs and government relations, estimates that the greenhouse floor area is increasing by about 5 percent annually. IESO expects agricultural demand to increase from the current winter peak of 500 megawatts to 2,300 by 2035.

Hydro One, the province’s largest transmission and distribution facility, said it is developing five new transmission lines in southwestern Ontario “to ensure that energy is available to support economic growth in the region as quickly as possible.” The projects will cost more than $1 billion and are scheduled to be completed in phases between now and 2030.

Dr. Karivu, who has warned of power shortages in Windsor Essex for several years, said Ontario’s highly centralized grid helps make electricity reliable and affordable. But regional planners have struggled to track disruptive technologies and other developments in a wide range of industries, let alone respond in real time. He does not envy the IESO’s responsibility for forecasting and planning.

“It’s a very difficult task for them,” he said. “They really need to have their fingers in every single economic sector and be aware of what’s coming.”

The struggles in Windsor Essex offer a taste of much larger challenges looming in Ontario and beyond as governments attempt to meet net zero commitments.

A recent report from Climate Canada added to an already massive pile of forecasts predicting massive booms in electricity demand as coal and gas-fired power plants are phased out and Canadians switch to electric vehicles, induction ranges, heat pumps and electric furnaces. The institute predicted that generation capacity would need to increase by up to 240 percent.

The report urged that “acting fast is much better than acting slowly”. “The most important thing now is that Canada continues with the task ahead: building clean energy supplies, especially solar, wind and storage; relentlessly phasing out generation from fossil fuels; and making the system more resilient.”

If IESO shared this perspective, its staff would likely be in a panic. Its forecast expects demand to grow at a steady pace of 1.7 percent annually. She acknowledged “more important needs that have emerged in the middle and later part of this decade that cannot be met by current resources alone,” adding that the county’s generation mix could change dramatically.

This year the government appointed the Electricity and Energy Conversion Commission headed by David Cooley, who recently finished his 12-year term as president and CEO of the Ontario Electrical Safety Authority.

Mr. Butters said the county must balance the need to move quickly against the risk of overbuilding and overpaying.

“We’re going to need everything we have now – and so much more,” he said. “I’m skeptical of people who say they have easy answers, because there are none.”

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