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Powering Tomorrow > How communities are reshaping Ontario's electricity system. (And how Ontario's electricity planners are helping them)

How communities are reshaping Ontario's electricity system. (And how Ontario's electricity planners are helping them)

July 16, 2021  |  Article

As Ontario’s electricity needs grow and priorities shift to more flexible solutions, new technologies are taking centre stage at the community level and realigning power system planning from the ground up. Through Powering Tomorrow, we’ll share the real stories of changes taking place in Ontario to tap into innovative developments and meet our future electricity needs.

Community in Ontario

For much of its history, the electricity sector in Ontario worked on a simple, top-down model – a network of large generators transmitted power long distances into homes, factories and hospitals across the province. And that was pretty much the end of the story.   

Today, large generators are being joined by a revolution in more flexible technologies - solar, energy storage, small-scale generation and energy management tools are gradually decentralizing the system, changing perspectives and consumption behaviours, and putting energy resources into a far larger group of hands. 

That includes many Ontario consumers, who are saving money by managing their household use with energy efficiency and using solar panels and electric vehicles. It also includes businesses earning revenue by generating and selling power to the grid, or reducing demand during peak periods.

But nowhere is this decentralization of the electricity system more apparent than on the community level. They’re seeing renewables and small-scale generation as possible solutions for tackling sustainability goals and supporting economic development, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the economy.

The City of Hamilton, for example, has been successfully blending energy reduction targets into its corporate policy since 2007, reducing its energy intensity 20 per cent by 2013 and establishing a small renewable generation plant. Now it has a new and more ambitious draft Community Energy and Emissions Plan (CEEP), aiming at a goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

“There’s a multi-layer approach we’ve been using for the last couple of years, assembling a working group and engaging a consultant and having stakeholders from different parts of the community provide feedback and direction,” says Tom Chessman, Manager, Energy Initiatives, Energy, Fleet & Facilities Management at the City of Hamilton. “We’ve been scoping out exactly what we wanted to try to accomplish, and it’s culminated in this draft report.”

A number of projects are on the table at both the city and community levels, including transit electrification, the potential of hydrogen fuel cells, a battery storage pilot, and a key focus on solar PV. “This is formalizing our vision,” says Tom. “These are the pathways we’re going to have to pursue if we're going to meet our commitment by 2050.” 

Changing Sector

These are big-ticket items, but they are presenting an ever more cost-effective option as the electricity sector landscape shifts - today in Ontario, after years of an electricity surplus, the need for new resources is growing.

IESO forecasts predict a summer capacity gap mid-decade when Pickering Nuclear closes for good and other nuclear generators reduce their output during scheduled refurbishments. A number of 20-year generation contracts will also be expiring soon.

Then there is the projection of solid growth in demand from a few key areas: a rapidly growing indoor agriculture sector, particularly in southwestern Ontario; the unexpected rise in residential demand reflecting work-from-home arrangements thanks to COVID-19; and the increasing electrification of cars and urban transit, expected to grow significantly over the next two decades and adding to both local and provincial demand.

Planning for Reliability

As the electricity system operator and planner, the IESO sits at the main intersection of the sector’s continuous activity, integrating traditional and emerging elements of supply and demand across all regions, from the community on up.

“What we’re seeing is newer technologies making advancements in the potential to address both local and provincial needs,” says Leonard Kula, the IESO’s Vice-President, Planning, Acquisition and Operations and Chief Operating Officer. “Innovation is allowing the province to introduce more competition in how we acquire resources, driving down costs for ratepayers, and making room for businesses to find opportunities to provide their services.”

And while its unique perspective helps the IESO understand how the elements are connecting today, planning for a reliable and affordable future needs other perspectives as well, including local ones. So as a grandfather in Peterborough is joining the ranks of electric vehicle owners and a North Bay bakery is adding solar generation to the local grid, the IESO is meeting with communities to understand their energy goals, how to help meet them, and what they mean for the bigger picture.

Tailored Community Solutions

The Windsor-Essex region in Southwest Ontario is a perfect example. It stands out in the IESO’s demand forecasts – while the province overall is expecting an annual one per cent increase to 2040, the Southwest shows electricity demand quadrupling over the next 15 years, largely from indoor agriculture facilities.

While a need this size called for three large transmission lines to bring more power into the region within the next decade, a variety of tailor-made options were enlisted to meet demand now while helping the region’s communities grow. They included two energy efficiency pilots, sponsored by IESO’s Grid Innovation Fund and customized for the covered agriculture sector – one an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered learning program, the other a fully dynamic LED lighting system. 

In addition, energy conservation programs specific to greenhouses are also helping those businesses save money and reduce energy use - the IESO’s Save on Energy Retrofit program covered around 30 per cent of the overall costs of installing or replacing greenhouse lighting systems with energy-efficient LEDs. By reducing energy use, customers make more power available, which can help additional customers connect in congested areas of the grid. 

Custom-made solutions like those in the Southwest rely heavily on community participation, but engagement is always a core part of how the IESO works. Stakeholder and community engagement teams connect and collaborate frequently with sector partners, individuals and organizations to understand the work on the ground and inform its decision-making for the future.

These connections will only become more important as the sector and its technologies continue to change. In planning for future needs, the IESO will continue working to understand and follow through on the promise of innovative solutions, with more participants and more perspectives than ever before, to ensure an affordable and reliable electricity future for Ontario.