After much delay the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) opened the application window for the second round of the controversial Feed-in Tariff program on December 14th, 2012. Meanwhile, the energy debate continues in the media.Green energy naysayers are shouting about rising electricity costs and surplus energy sold at a loss. Alternate energy leaders, who have invested heavily in this nascent industry, are decrying the delays and process gridlock that are threatening to scuttle our first meaningful step toward sustainable generation. And the real problem, that energy policy is treated as a sideshow of political gladiatorial combat, only grows worse.

For the sake of Ontario’s continued energy security, we need to take the responsibility of electricity infrastructure planning out of the political arena and put it in the hands of the experts.

At the Association of Power Producers of Ontario (APPrO) conference earlier this month, energy policy stakeholders with all stripes of agenda met to hear the findings of the Innovative Research Group’s polling of Ontarians. The results boiled down into two insightful messages:

1) Energy companies require social permission to operate.
2) No one wants to pay more for electricity, but they can be convinced it is necessary.

Recall the scandal with the cancellation of the gas plants in Mississauga and Oakville just before the last election. The Liberals have been accused of moving the plants to gain votes, though it’s often forgotten that both Hudak and Horwath made campaign promises to cancel the plants as well. The plan was doomed from the start because there was no community buy-in. The real problem was not the moving of the gas plants but the planning of them in these communities in the first place. No one signs a mortgage and hopes that someone will build a pipeline in the backyard, a substation across the fence, or an emissions-heavy generating station down the road.

Still, the IRG polling found that 42% of Ontarians believe the Liberal government’s current energy policies to be basically sound and need only minor changes, versus just 18% who feel that the policies are fundamentally flawed.

The cause of concern is that the populace doesn’t feel engaged and informed when it comes to planning and implementation. Regulatory agencies like the Ontario Energy Board, the Independent Electrical Service of Ontario, and the Ontario Power Authority are largely unknown and poorly regarded. Winning the buy-in of an increasingly alienated electorate is not an easy task. If it’s going to be accomplished, it won’t be done in the political arena.

Energy planning is poorly suited to media-sized soundbites and debates shaped by the election cycle. We need a body that is empowered to embrace the Ontario Power Authority’s four pillars of reliability, economic development, affordability, and environmental sustainability while remaining long in its view, current in its technology strategy, and dynamic in balancing the economics of demand and supply. Let Queen’s Park shape the policy, but leave implementation to the OPA. Otherwise, the confusion of roles and jurisdictions will continue to result in erratic, wasteful, and expensive electricity.

This is in fact how the Electricity Restructuring Act in 2004 was supposed to mandate each organization with its appropriate role. The Minister of Energy would issue high level Supply Mix Directives indicating that, for example, coal-fired generation should be eliminated. The OPA would then develop its Integrated Power System Plan on this policy direction, and the Ontario Energy Board would convene a public hearing to allow for scrutiny of the OPA recommended plan. Once the OEB approved a plan, the OPA would be empowered to implement it, without requiring further directives from the Minister’s office. This original structure is sane and workable, If only the politicians could leave it alone.

For the sake of the constituents, the OPA needs to rise from obscurity and become the owner and executor of the Long Term Energy Plan. Once we have an enduring and impartial arbiter on energy that the public can know and trust, then can the education process begin. The OPA can explain that recent increases in electricity bills have been catching up with past accounting sins and are largely unrelated to current projects and planning.

They can talk about the complexities of choosing a power generation supply mix when no single generating method can meet the province’s dynamic needs.

With the OPA as the keeper of the provincial energy plan, the public discussion can move away from partisan bickering and tackle meatier subjects like the conflicting economic pressures of capital cost per watt, appropriate timing of generation, and responsiveness to rapid changes in demand.

We can talk about the merits of nuclear as a baseload generator while acknowledging its inability to keep up with peak demand in a market where usage can leap from 16,000 megawatts to over 25,000 megawatts in just 9 hours on a hot summer day.

We can talk about Ontario’s 9 terawatt hours of electricity exports in 2011 due to an overdeveloped baseload and an unexpected drop in total energy consumption, without letting that blind us to the fact that we desperately need to build more peaking generation to support the universally agreed upon plan to eliminate coal-fired generation.

We can look at natural gas as it is seen through the unbiased eyes of the experts: as a stopgap replacement to coal, not a long-term solution. Half the emissions of coal, we can acknowledge, is better than all of them, while still looking forward to the new technologies that natural gas will bridge us towards. And we can consider that, even as an interim solution, gas plants can not ramp-up as quickly as can coal plants and so will need additional support if they are to meet our peak demand needs.

Most importantly, we can stop thinking of all renewable energy sources as an environmentalist indulgence and instead evaluate them on their actual merits. We can note that the intermittency of these power sources is not always a bad thing. That, while wind turbines peak in output on windy nights when we are already oversupplied and selling to the USA at $0.02 per kilowatt hour or less, solar output almost perfectly tracks the demand profile in Ontario, thus providing the support that new gas plants will require.

If we can only depoliticize the energy conversation, we might finally be able to realize the potential of the bold first steps on the path to sustainable generation that the Green Energy Act of 2009 represents, rather than getting bogged down in partisan bickering about implementation. With an apolitical OPA at the helm of our long term energy plan, we are that much more likely to find the most affordable road to lasting energy security. That’s a goal we can all agree on.