Last Tuesday the government of Ontario announced the Thunder Bay Generating Station – Ontario’s last coal-fired power plant – had burnt off its last supply of coal. The electricity of Canada’s most populous province is officially coal free.
“Today we celebrate a cleaner future for our children and grandchildren while embracing the environmental benefits that our cleaner energy sources will bring,” says Bob Chiarelli, Ontario’s Minister of Energy, in a press release.
The coal power plant in Thunder Bay was one of five in Ontario that a little over ten years ago produced 25 per cent of the province’s electricity. Burning coal is a particularly polluting form of generating electricity and shutting down Ontario’s five coal plants is the equivalent of pulling seven million cars off the road in terms of global warming greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Ontario is the first province or state in North America to successfully phase out the burning of coal to produce electricity. The Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development describes the move as the “single largest regulatory action in North America” to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The province’s coal phase out arrives a year ahead of schedule. Ontario Premier Ernie Eves committed in 2002 to shut down all the province’s coal power plants by 2015. Last year, the province’s current premier Kathleen Wynne introduced legislation that will ban coal from being used for electricity production in Ontario ever again.
The Ontario Clear Air Alliance (OCAA), a Toronto-based organization that played a central role in the coal phase out welcomed Tuesday’s announcement describing it as a “great day for our province and our planet.”
David vs Goliath - Ontarians' Campaign to Shut Down Coal Plants
“When we started our campaign, people in Ontario who considered themselves to be politically astute, assumed that we didn’t have a chance to achieve a coal phase-out. And it is not surprising that they thought so. We were engaged in a David and Goliath battle,” says Jack Gibbons, director of the Ontario Clear Air Alliance.
“The majority of the people of Ontario didn’t know that Ontario had coal-fired power plants. And they certainly didn’t know that our Nanticoke Generating Station on Lake Erie was the largest coal plant in North America and Canada’s #1 air polluter,” Gibbons told DeSmog Canada. Nanticoke shut down last December.
The Ontario Clean Air Alliance formed in 1997 to push for an end to coal in the province. Currently the Alliance consists of ninety public health organizations, faith groups, unions, hydro utilities and municipalities, including the City of Toronto.
“People thought that while the OCAA might be well meaning it was engaged in a futile campaign that was sure to fail,” recalls Gibbons.
The political context in Ontario was less than ideal for a campaign against coal when the Alliance got started. Progressive Conservative leader Mike Harris was premier at that time. The ‘Harris Years’ remembered by many Ontarians as a time of severe cuts to the public sector and clashes with environmental groups. This was not the premier one would expect to bring about the end of coal in Ontario.
Surprisingly, it was Harris who legislated in 2001 the closing of the Lakeview coal power plant in Mississauga. Lakeview closed four years later becoming the first of Ontario’s five coal plants to shut down.
Game Changer – Ontario Medical Association Speaks Out Against Air Pollution
“The involvement of the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) in the air pollution issue changed everything,” Gibbons told DeSmog Canada.
On May 12th, 1998, the president of the OMA, an organization representing the province’s doctors, announced “air pollution is a public health crisis” in Ontario. Two years later the Association released a study showing air pollution killed 1,900 Ontarians per year and cost the economy $10 billion annually.
“While the politicians could ignore the environmentalists when they said that smog kills, they couldn’t ignore Ontario’s doctors. And neither the politicians nor OPG (Ontario Power Generation) dared to challenge the doctors when they said that air pollution is a public health crisis in Ontario. As a result, the politicians had to find a solution to this crisis,” says Gibbons from Toronto.
The Thunder Bay coal power plant will be converted to biomass in order to keep producing electricity and has retained sixty jobs in the process. According to the province of Ontario, a combination of nuclear, biomass, natural gas, waterpower, wind and solar power have made up for the power coal once produced. All are far less polluting than coal-fired electrical generation.
Is a Phase Out of Nuclear Power Next?
As for the Ontario Clear Air Alliance, one campaign has ended and a new campaign has already begun. The Alliance’s focus now is to phase out nuclear power in Ontario, possibly a far more difficult task given over half of Ontario’s electricity comes from nuclear and the province’s two biggest political parties – Liberals and Progressive Conservatives – support nuclear power.
Gibbons believes by using a similar strategy that the Alliance’s used for its coal campaign they will succeed in phasing out nuclear. The pillars of the organization’s success with coal, according to Gibbons, was having a clear message, good solution, and credible messenger, addressing an important political issue, and building a strong base of public support.
“That in a nutshell is how we achieved the coal phase-out,” Gibbons told DeSmog Canada.
The Ontario Clear Air Alliance’s goal is for Ontario to run on one hundred per cent renewable energy by 2030.
Image Credit: coal power plant by Wigwam Jones via Flickr