Ontario government must act now to ensure energy conservation in the future: Commissioner report

Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner, Gord Miller, says uncertainty about the future of electricity conservation programs is discouraging further energy savings in Ontario.

On Tuesday, Miller released Volume Two of his 2011 Annual Energy Conservation Progress Report. This report annually reviews reductions in energy usage, increases in energy efficiency, and the progress and barriers to energy conservation. Volume One of the report was released in June 2012. The report shows that Ontario’s electricity conservation programs are cost effective and cheaper than generating power to supply demand. The cost of each kilowatt-hour saved through conservation programs in 2011 was about 3 cents.

Yet the Environmental Commissioner found the government has been slower than expected in building a culture of conservation in Ontario, a goal announced by the government in 2004. “It’s been almost a decade, and we still have not gone beyond the foundation work to actually build the rest of the structure.”

A critical pressure point was relieved recently when the government announced it was extending the conservation programs for the province’s local distribution companies (LDCs) for a year beyond their December 31, 2014 termination date.

“This was an important development, but it is not a permanent solution,” said Miller. “The extension of the programs only highlights the need for a long-term commitment to funding conservation within electricity planning. The government needs to make conservation the new normal, so that everyone can build it into their business plans. Local distribution companies (LDCs) and suppliers have expressed reluctance to invest in needed programs without this assurance. Also, consumers and businesses may hesitate to sign up for programs with uncertain futures.”

In his review, the Environmental Commissioner also evaluated the progress made towards meeting the 2014 electricity conservation targets that had previously been established for the province’s LDCs. The report covers results from 2011, which was the first year of the new conservation framework that assigned LDCs a larger role in delivering conservation programs.

The report found that while the distribution companies were on track to meet their target of reducing total electricity usage by 6,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh) between 2011 and 2014, they would fall one-third short of needed reductions in the peak electricity demand. This could lead to increased use of natural gas-fired plants to meet this peak demand.

The Progress Report also discovered significant differences in the conservation accomplishments of LDCs. One of the findings was that LDC size was not a strong predictor of achievement.

Money can be saved in the Province’s schools

Miller says more money could be spent on in-classroom education, if the Ontario government and the province’s school boards improved their efforts to reduce their electricity and natural gas bills. His report found that close to $340 million is spent in Ontario to provide heat and power to the province’s public schools. “There is great potential for savings in improving the energy efficiency of schools,” says Miller, “and fortunately, energy is one of the few expenses that can be reduced without affecting the learning environment.”

The report says the Ontario Government had to abandon its goal of reducing school energy usage by 10 per cent, because some schools could not measure their energy consumption. So it launched a Utility Consumption Database (UCD) to collect data on the electricity and natural gas used by every public school in the province.

“It’s a well-known maxim that you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” says Miller. “The database is an important tool that boards can use to identify opportunities for schools to become more energy efficient.”

Miller points to the success of the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB), whose data on energy usage showed a wide range in energy efficiency among its schools. “By replacing windows and boilers, changing lights, and improving heating and air conditioning equipment in just a third of its schools, in a three-year period the Board realized a 16 per cent reduction in energy usage per square metre, and saved more than $500 thousand annually.”

Unfortunately, says the Commissioner, the Ministry of Education has decided to keep access to the database restricted to school boards, and rejected a suggestion the ECO made previously to provide open access. This prevents conservation efforts from advancing to their full potential. “The Ministry and the boards need to sort this out. The Ministry says it won’t publicly release the information on the energy efficiency of individual schools, because the data belongs to the school boards. But I believe parents, students and community members would like to know the energy performance of their schools.”

Miller points out publishing the results could also help school boards improve the energy efficiency of their facilities. “Companies with expertise in the field could do an analysis of the data, and offer innovative solutions to improve energy efficiency.”

The report commended the ministry for its proactive efforts of the past few years. Because of the database, school boards are significantly ahead of most of the broader public sector in the conservation planning and reporting that will be required of municipalities, hospitals and educational institutions starting this summer. “The Ministry should take the next step, and establish aggressive energy conservation targets for the sector.”

A review of three Ministry of Education programs that provide capital funding for school energy conservation will be published in a future ECO report.

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