Tuesday, October 2, 2012

In defense of Christopher Bentley

The Ontario legislature has just passed a motion of contempt against Minister of Energy Christopher Bentley (here).  The motion deals with the release of documents, .demanded by a legislative commitee, related to the cancellation (or relocation) of a natural gas-fired generation facility in Oakville.  The plant was cancelled before Mr. Bentley became the Minister of Energy.

The motion is justified in respecting both the power of the legislature and historical respect for ministerial accountability, but there are reasons the matter should now be settled as quietly as possible.

The Ministry of Energy has not been stable since Premier McGuinty first won office.  The only Minister with over 2 years in the portfolio was Dwight Duncan - the architect of the global adjustment scheme that I argue is transferring the value of Ontario's public generation assets to private parties favourable to the government.

The next longest-serving Minister of Energy is the hapless Brad Duguid - pronounced "do good".  He didn't do much - aside from cheerleading existing policies.  Documents that were released under pressure from the opposition parties reportedly indicate Duguid wasn't in the loop on negotiations with TransCanada Energy.

Duguid took over a file crippled by the lightly educated George Smitherman.  The Smitherman era is where the Oakville TransCanada disaster originates.  On April Fool's Day, 2009, the OPA announced 4 locations were eligible to bid for work on a generating plant in "southwestern GTA:"
From the OPA site
The plant will be located in Mississauga or Oakville. It will provide rapid, on-demand power in an area where the OPA predicts that the ability of the existing infrastructure to supply area needs will fall short by 2015, despite aggressive conservation measures and increased renewable energy sources. Generating power locally ensures a secure and dependable supply.
The plant will also support the province’s phase out of coal-fired generation – the single largest source of air pollution in Ontario – by the end 2014. As well, it will complement an increase in renewable energy because of its ability to respond quickly when variable sources like wind or solar power are not available.
We now know the plant that is the end result from this process is to be located 277 km away.
We know that is ridiculous in terms of the original process.

The opposition wants documents to show how this feeble minded stupidity occurred.
Nothing is going to explain it, nor is anything likely to appropriately tally the costs of replacing professional planning with crass pandering politics.

But ...
It's been known for a very long time that there is resistance to new locations for new power plants.  One reason provided for the Oakville/Clarkson plant was the removal of service of the Lakeshore Generating Station in 2005, and subsequent promise, from Smitherman, no new generating station would be built there.  When the closure of that plant was planned, by a PC government, a replacement was planned for the site.

The debacle is not Bentley's fault, but I suggest Bentley may have played a very bad hand as well as the electorate could hope for.

For starters, he's relocated both the Etobicoke sites and the Oakville plant to existing generating sites.  That should have been the policy (and that should have been known for well over 2 decades).
He also is likely to have utilized the delays in Bruce A refurbishments at units 1 and 2 to extract concessions from TransCanada (owners of slightly under 50%).

He's held off on both a new round of FIT contracts for unnecessary wind turbines, and on granting guarantees of payment for the large amount of currently contracted wind output that the grid will be unable to accept.

The new solar FIT program is saner than the previous one (with real protections for some farm lands, and some encouragement for garnering community support).
and ... as much as it pains me to say ... commodity rate increases have slowed considerably.

Some of that is luck.  There will be some upward pressure on rates as Bruce A units come online along with more solar and wind contracted before he became minister.  
I think it preferable to allow Mr. Bentley to run the Energy portfolio instead of gambling on a replacement from within the Liberal ranks.

If the NDP and the PC's want to elevate this from grandstanding to emphasize the supremacy of the legislature ( a valid concern ) to a feudal call for a sacrificial head, I hope they see an option to capably replace the minister.

I don't.

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