The Liberal government was protecting the seats of two Thunder Bay cabinet ministers when it ignored warnings about converting a coal-fired power plant to a pricey biomass fuel, Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown says.
“It’s part of a broader problem we have — it’s political intervention in energy and it’s resulted in us paying among the highest energy prices in North America.” Brown told reporters Thursday in the wake of a scathing report from auditor general Bonnie Lysyk.
She found the Ministry of Energy directed the now defunct Ontario Power Authority toconvert the Thunder Bay plant to biomass imported from Europe despite the OPA’s advice it would not be “cost-effective.”
Electricity from that plant now costs $1,600 per MWh — 25 times higher than the average cost of other biomass power plants in Ontario, the auditor said, noting the ministry ignored other OPA advice on numerous occasions.
“I think the auditor general’s assessment is pretty clear that it made no sense, so the only explanation is it is a politically motivated decision,” Brown said.
Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle defended the move, maintaining the power is needed to serve northwestern Ontario at peak times and for potential demand from the mining industry.
“There was really a broad, visionary thinking involved in this,” said Gravelle, who represents the riding of Thunder Bay-Superior North. The adjacent riding, Thunder Bay-Atikokan, is held by Natural Resources and Forestry Minister Bill Mauro.
“We’ll hopefully see those costs go down,” Gravelle added, noting the hunt is on for a local company to make the fuel. “We’re hoping this happens.”
The conversion cost for the plant was about $5 million and preserved 60 local jobs, said Gravelle.
The fuel imports prove the government “didn’t do their homework” by lining up a local supply first to avoid sticking ratepayers with the higher costs, and carbon footprint, of shipping biomass pellets from overseas, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
“It just shows once again, although the plant was necessary and performing an important service for the people of northwestern Ontario, this government was caught with its pants down in terms of the details.”
Opposition parties have repeatedly criticized the government for scrapping natural gas-fired power plants in Oakville and Mississauga, which proved unpopular with local residents, before the 2011 election to protect the seats of Liberal MPPs in the southwest GTA.
Lysyk has reported previously that the cancellations and relocations of those two plants to the Sarnia and Napanee areas could cost up to $1.1 billion over the next 20 years.