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Manitoba's hydro may keep lights on

Toronto Star - April 12, 2004

Manitoba has an offer that Ontario may not be able to refuse. Simply, it wants to sell us as much electricity as we can buy. And Manitoba has lots of electricity to sell: clean, renewable, price-stable hydro and wind power.

At the same time, Ontario is aching for power. With the hot summer months just about on us, it may soon become painfully obvious once again that unless this province can find new supplies of power, we face the bleak prospect of brownouts and power outages in the years ahead.

The conclusion should be logical: Ontario, which will lose nearly half of its power generators to old age over the next dozen years, should be looking seriously at buying as much Manitoba power as it can.

For months now, senior officials at Queen's Park and in Winnipeg have been studying a Manitoba proposal to build huge dams along the Nelson River in northern Manitoba, then ship the power over a new transmission line to Sudbury, where it would link up with the existing power grid.

Certainly, there are major stumbling blocks to what should be a match made in heaven for the two provinces.

First, the Manitoba government could face environmental issues in getting permission to build the dams. Native groups may fight the project, claiming traditional hunting and fishing grounds could be destroyed.

Second, it will cost a minimum of $2.5 billion to build the new transmission line — and that huge figure may be too conservative.

Third, even if an agreement could be reached tomorrow, the power would not start moving until 2010 and later.

Initially, only modest amounts of electricity would be involved. It would be about 1,500 megawatts, or 5 per cent of Ontario's current supply. But if Ontario invests in the transmission line, Manitoba could supply 20 to 25 per cent of our power needs in 10 to 15 years. That could grow further if power from wind turbines in northwestern Ontario are added to the grid.

Clearly, Manitoba can never meet all Ontario's power needs. This province will need to find other new sources, plus promote conservation. But Manitoba's hydro power should be part of that mix.

In fact, if a 1989 deal had not been cancelled, we'd already be getting 10 per cent of our power from Manitoba, enough to close half of our polluting coal power plants. An agreement to buy power, signed by David Peterson's Liberal government, was cancelled in 1991 by the NDP's Bob Rae, who argued the recession made the project uneconomical at the time.

Manitoba says it would prefer to sell its power to Ontario. But if Ontario isn't interested, the Americans are happy to step in. Manitoba already exports 30 per cent of its power to the United States and there is a proposal to build a new transmission line into the northern U.S. plains states.

There are also national issues at stake here that beg for Ottawa's involvement in the transmission line. Encouraging Ontario to use hydro power, and close its polluting coal plants, would take Canada a long way to fulfilling its Kyoto accord commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The coal plants are the country's biggest source of those emissions.

So far, Ottawa's $500 million so-called "Action Plan" to curb emissions has been a failure. Indeed, emissions are higher than ever. Rather than spend millions more on vague public education programs, Ottawa could actually produce concrete results by helping pay for a transmission line. Also worthy of Ottawa's note is that a secure national energy grid is in Canada's best interest. We have no east-west power lines of any size. The big power exporters — Manitoba, Quebec and British Columbia — send almost all of their excess power south, not to their Canadian neighbours.

Canada once built railways and the St. Lawrence Seaway, understanding they were ties of national importance.

Next month, a feasibility report on the Manitoba-Ontario project is due to be released. Governments in Ottawa and Queen's Park should look well beyond the mere numbers when they decide what to do.

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