Ontario is spending $100 million to connect more remote communities with natural-gas service. WAYNE CUDDINGTON / POSTMEDIA
The provincial government will spend $100 million to build natural-gas lines and help rural Ontarians get off electric heat, calculating that high hydro bills are a bigger problem than greenhouse-gas emissions.
The provincial Liberals have been roasted for years over the high cost of electricity. Lots of rural residents are hit by two whammies: they’re stuck with Hydro One as their power company, which is much more expensive than service from municipal utilities like Hydro Ottawa, and they heat their homes with electricity because there simply aren’t gas mains where they live.
The combination of Hydro One and electric heating explains monthly bills like the one for $1,000 that had Kathy Katula, of Buckhorn (near Peterborough), weeping at a town hall with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a couple of weeks ago. Urban Ontarians don’t get bills like that.
Installing more gas pipes is supposed to give people options, Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli says. Oil and propane heat, using fuels delivered by truck, are a bit cheaper than electricity — but only a bit.
“Increased access to natural gas in towns across the province will generate significant local investment, help businesses grow and create jobs, and it will improve the quality of life for all Ontario residents,” he said in a generic statement announcing the plan on Monday. The ministry estimates a household switching to natural gas could save more than $1,000 a year.
Chiarelli’s ministry said the money will be given out after “a competitive intake process” that’s to start this spring, with municipal governments and First Nations bands expected to work with natural-gas companies to submit bids. Details are scarce but presumably the more people that can be served with the province’s money, the better. Homeowners and landlords will have to install gas furnaces and boilers, which is plenty expensive, but can’t happen without the pipes in the ground first.
This is a new run at an old problem: in 2015, the government offered up a $200-million loan program with much the same purpose but had trouble when the natural-gas suppliers wanted to raise prices for existing customers to pay for their expansion plans. The Ontario Energy Board (which regulates energy prices) said no, new customers will have to cover the costs of their own services.
Trouble is, if they thought it would be economical to get new customers to cover the cost of laying new gas lines to rural and remote towns, the suppliers would have done it on their own.
Last fall, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the councils of rural county wardens in both eastern and western Ontario asked the province for more natural-gas help. Homeowners’ hydro bills are a big deal but they hamper commercial and industrial development and they ding farmers, too.
So here we are, with a straight-up grant program that will help gas distributors get more customers. Enbridge and Union Gas, Ontario’s big distributors, pronounced themselves delighted.
“Enbridge is routinely approached by rural communities who want access. We are pleased that the government has recognized this need because connecting these communities will not only significantly lower energy bills, it will also drive economic development in rural Ontario,” said Cynthia Hansen, the president of Enbridge’s gas business.
Not so long ago, the Liberals were musing about phasing out natural gas for home heating, because it’s a fossil fuel and burning fossil fuels creates greenhouse gases and those are contrary to the government’s climate-change plans. Electricity drawn from the provincial power grid is comparatively expensive but also pretty clean. Sixty per cent of it comes from nuclear plants, another 25 per cent from hydro dams. (Nuclear power has its own problems, of course, but greenhouse-gas emissions aren’t among them.) Replacing an oil furnace with a natural-gas one will cut emissions but replacing baseboard heaters with gas will likely increase them.
The idea of forbidding new houses to be built with gas furnaces decades from now took a spin through the political outrage machine and got condemned as a scheme to ban natural gas entirely, which was inaccurate but turned out to be so poisonous a notion the Liberals ran away from even their less ambitious plan.
They are still spending $100 million on efficiency programs, aimed at cutting our consumption of whatever fuels we use for heat. This is supposed to be the easy part when it comes to fighting climate change: Better insulation and modern windows can be expensive to install but they cut energy consumption forever and reduce both emissions and people’s bills. Switching from one kind of energy to another is not as great.
But it is another whack at household electricity costs, which the Liberals have determined are a huge threat to their own re-election prospects in 2018. Expect more of this in the next year.
Ottawa Sun by David Reevely
Jan 30th 2017