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Ontario net-zero grid possible by 2035: Report

A report from Power Advisory commissioned by The Atmospheric Fund sets a blueprint for Ontario to build a net-zero electric grid by 2035, meeting a national target for net-zero electricity supply. (Courtesy The Atmospheric Fund)

Ontario can have a net-zero power grid by 2035 if it focuses on immediate investment, a diverse blend of renewable sources and energy storage over natural gas capacity, according to a report from Power Advisory.

The report, titled Scenarios for a Net-Zero Electricity System in Ontario, was commissioned by The Atmospheric Fund (TAF). It offers a series of plans for Ontario’s government to develop a net-zero electric grid by 2035 in line with a Canada-wide ambition for a net-zero electricity supply mix by 2035.

Ontario’s grid is 91 per cent clean according to the Independent Electricity System Operator, but the province has set a goal of meeting rising demand for electricity with natural gas, which would increase grid emissions by 260 per cent by 2040. Ontario is predicted to face a significant leap in electricity demand from electrification of infrastructure and electric vehicle adoption.

“We have the once-in-a-generation opportunity to build an electricity system that expands Ontario’s clean electricity advantage and meets the needs of both urban and rural communities,” said Julia Langer, CEO of TAF, in a release.

Three scenarios for net-zero electricity

The report lays out three scenarios to transition Ontario’s grid into net-zero.

  • Scenario 1 assumes balanced commitments to conservation, which is energy efficiency, codes and standards impacts and technology evolution totalling 23 tW-h; 2.4 GW of new nuclear generation at Pickering Nuclear Generating Station; 2 GW of firm imports from Hydro-Quebec; and a maximum demand response of 1.7 GW and 2.2 GW during the summer and winter, respectively.
  • Scenario 2 projects no commitment to conservation, 2.4 GW of new nuclear generation, 2 GW of firm imports, 1.8 GW of maximum summer demand response and 2.5 GW of maximum winter demand response. There is a greater investment into wind, solar and energy storage compared to other scenarios.
  • Scenario 3 is identical to Scenario 1, except there is no new nuclear generation.

The report then makes a series of assumptions and forecasts to conclude that boosting energy efficiency, solar, wind and energy storage capacity is the most economical way of meeting climbing electricity demand. Gas-fired generation is expected to be more costly and less competitive due to the rising cost of natural gas and being subject to higher carbon price.

Meanwhile, “The cost of wind and solar has dropped dramatically since 2019,” Aakash Harpalani, director of clean energy at TAF, noted in an interview with SustainableBiz. " . . . investments in energy efficiency investments are extremely cost effective and should really narrow that expected supply gap we foresee heading into the next decade.”

If the report’s scenarios are adopted, Power Advisory expects Ontario's grid greenhouse gas emissions to drop to around two megatonnes by 2035.

Overcoming the obstacles

With demand for electricity in Ontario projected to reach anywhere from 5,000 MW and 8,000 MW by 2030, the report urges immediate investment to reach net-zero.

“2035 is going to be coming up sooner than we expected. It really underscores the need to start moving a lot of these things forward right now. We have a short window of opportunity to start modernizing our systems. The longer we wait to act, the costlier it is going to be. But what these three scenarios demonstrate is that it is possible; we can start investing in solutions that are proven right now,” Harpalani said.

It recommends a “wide array of resource investments” to achieve a net-zero supply mix. Harpalani said it would involve a substantial increase in building wind and solar capacity. This would allow for minimal strain on the power system and development capabilities of the electricity industry, the report argues, as well as bypass uncertainties like the impacts of innovation and cost reductions.

Second, it proposes continuing support for cost-effective conservation investments. These would include consistent updates to codes and standards, supporting centralized conservation programs, targeted conservation efforts and funding for training of skilled labour for installing energy efficiency equipment is given.

Third, the report says Ontario should establish a consistent and long-term procurement roadmap to prevent shortfalls in materials and labour. A long-term procurement roadmap would need to build confidence with investors; ensure Ontario has access to low-cost capital to fund infrastructure; and be adaptable to external private investments in renewables, like corporate renewable power purchase agreements.

Fourth, it urges the completion of a net-zero transmission system study and action plan. The net-zero transmission study should identify priority bulk system plans and establish an action plan for development and could look at potential streamlining for regulatory and permitting approvals.

Finally, it asks to explore multiple solutions in parallel. “Multiple solutions should be pursued pragmatically and in parallel,” such as distributed energy resources and long-term resources like transmission-connected renewables.

There are also political and economic obstacles not mentioned in the report. Ontario’s government led by the Conservatives has dedicated minimal attention on climate-related issues. There are also headwinds from expectations for difficult economic conditions, making heavy investment unlikely.

Harpalani said the report demonstrates Ontario can build an electrical system that’s reliable and clean while being affordable for taxpayers. There have been promising steps from Ontario’s government, he said, like investing into 2.5 GW of energy storage.

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