Alternative fuels

In June 2001, the Ontario Legislature appointed the all-party Select Committee on Alternative Fuel Sources, "to investigate, report and recommend ways of supporting the development and application of environmentally sustainable alternatives to our existing fossil [carbon-based] fuel sources." The Committee reported in June 2002 with 141 recommendations in 20 topic areas. The recommendations were designed "to establish an overall policy framework to support the development of alternative fuels/energy, and outline policy and programs to support specific alternative fuel/energy sources and technologies ... to make Ontario a leader in North America in the support and use of alternative fuels/energy."28

The Committee reached the following broad conclusions with respect to particular fuels:

  • Water power has significant additional potential in Ontario. The Committee emphasized the refurbishment of existing facilities, but also noted the opportunity for installation of at least an additional two gigawatts of generating capacity, including the Niagara River Beck 3 site.
  • Wind power has significant immediate potential within Ontario. Commercially viable wind resource sites exist along the north shores of the Great Lakes and elsewhere, and there may be significant potential in the Hudson and James Bay lowlands. Production of electricity at the Atikokan and Thunder Bay coal-fired generating stations should be replaced by production from wind farms within three years.
  • Biomass fuel has significant additional potential for power generation. The committee noted opportunities for further collection of landfill gas and for further use of wood and other wastes. It urged that production of methane from manure be developed, and proposed assessment of the potential for using crops grown as fuel, e.g., switchgrass.
  • On energy from waste (i.e., incineration), the Committee could not reach consensus, but "accepts that ... modern energy-from-waste installations may be considered in the treatment of municipal waste."
  • Solar power--e.g., photovoltaic generation of electricity--requires renewed attention for smaller-scale urban and remote locations, and there is significant potential for passive solar design in new construction and major renovation of buildings. The Committee noted the relatively high cost of photovoltaic generation, and the constraints arising from Ontario's latitude.
  • Ethanol and biodiesel fuels (the former produced from waste or other biomass) should be encouraged as additives to or replacements for gasoline and diesel fuel, and the capacity to produce and distribute them should be established.
  • Fuel cell applications should be further investigated, as should the production of hydrogen by electrolysis using off-peak power from nuclear and hydro sources. The Committee noted that at present "fuel cells may only be practical in high mileage bus, truck or railway operations" and that there are "unresolved technical and development issues related to the source, availability and distribution of hydrogen from fuel cells."29
  • Other alternative fuel applications with promise include cogeneration (use of waste heat from electricity generation), nuclear fusion, earth energy (use of the natural heating or cooling properties of the earth or water bodies in conjunction with heat pumps or heat exchangers), and geothermal energy (steam or hot water from deep bores).

Specific recommendations included the elimination of fossil-fuel-based electricity generation in Ontario by 2015, incentives for the installation of solar panels on 100,000 homes, and establishment of aggressive targets for the use of alternative transport fuels.

The Committee made numerous recommendations under "land use planning and development," including one concerning the Smart Growth process: "The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing shall review the 'healthy environment component' of the municipal Smart Growth initiative to include measures to promote the use of alternative fuels/energy, including efficiency and conservation measures." Another recommendation under this topic was that municipalities should "make provision for alternative fuel/energy" in their land-use control measures.

A consultant's report commissioned by the Committee concluded that cogeneration "is likely to be the most economic and efficient form for new electricity generation in Ontario in the near term."30 This report was less obviously enthusiastic about the potential for wind power--the production of electricity from wind energy--noting institutional and economic barriers. Institutional barriers include "absence of a land-use planning framework that accounts for the specific circumstances of wind power." The main economic barrier was said to be the lack of competitiveness of wind power compared with cogeneration using natural gas.

The Committee itself was more enthusiastic about wind power, as indicated above. The recommendation to eliminate fossil-fuel-based electricity generation has a reasonably solid basis. The February 2002 report of the Ontario Wind Power Task Force--which the Select Committee considered--estimated Ontario's land-based wind-power capacity to be up to 7.5 gigawatts, capable of producing 19.7 terawatt-hours of electricity annually, equivalent to 71 petajoules, or about 14% of electricity consumption in 2000 (see Figure 1).31 That report also noted the huge potential for offshore wind power (not evidently pursued by the Select Committee). The Ontario part of Lake Erie alone could produce more than Ontario's total current electricity consumption. Use of James Bay and shallow parts of the other Great Lakes could perhaps more than quadruple this output.32

Figure 10. Bockstigen offshore wind farm, Sweden

Offshore wind power is more expensive to establish, but its return is greater because winds at turbine height tend to be stronger and steadier over water than over land. Figure 10 shows a Swedish offshore wind farm, with more extensive land-based installations in the background.33 Denmark has invested more heavily in offshore wind farms, but the largest project in progress may be one in the Irish Sea. With rapid exploitation of wind power at numerous sites around the world, the cost of electricity generation from wind is declining and could soon be competitive with current generation costs, not to mention costs when fossil fuel prices increase.

Other alternative fuels show less promise, but should not be ruled out. As fossil fuel prices increase, the main barrier to the use of many of them will cease to exist. Perhaps the greatest challenges lie in provision of alternative fuels for transportation. Production of liquid biofuels for use in combustion engines could be energy-intensive to the point of inutility. Fuel cells, the focus of much of the research and development work of the automotive industry, seem far from practical, cost-effective realization. Moreover, what is presently the only commercially practicable source of the hydrogen that most fuel cells require, natural gas, is rapidly becoming expensive, as noted above.34

Given the promise of wind energy, electricity could well become more available as a fuel for transportation. Battery-powered vehicles will always have the inherent limitation of batteries' low power/weight ratios, but there could nevertheless be many appropriate urban and other uses.35 (For comparison, there is about 100 times the usable energy in an equivalent weight of gasoline as in a lead-acid battery; the best conceivable technological improvements would not reduce that to better than about 20 times.)

Tethered electric vehicles--e.g., trains, streetcars, trolley buses, and even trolley trucks--are remarkably efficient and will likely play more important roles as our energy sources change. The challenge here is that conventional tethered vehicle technologies are more appropriate to transit vehicles rather than to personal vehicles (i.e., automobiles, SUVs, etc.).36

Whichever modes prevail, a society dependent on renewable energy will likely be more dependent on electricity as the immediate fuel for most functions. An overriding advantage of electricity is that there are numerous ways of generating it--wind, solar, water, nuclear, waste materials, etc.--and thus numerous ways of exploiting a range of renewable resources.

Thus, the implications for Smart Growth of forthcoming changes in Ontario's energy regime could well include the need to accommodate very much more production of electricity from renewable resources, redesign of buildings and communities to take advantage of solar energy, greater use of public transit, and correspondingly lesser use of personal vehicles. Each of these directions has in turn profound implications for the way in which land (and water) would be used in the Central Ontario Zone.

The time frame for changes in energy regime is uncertain. The Ontario Wind Power Task Force spoke of having up to three gigawatts of capacity in place by 2010, producing about nine terawatt-hours of electricity annually and requiring an investment of $4.5 billion. The Select Committee spoke of replacing all fossil fuel generation of electricity by 2015, i.e., generating about 44 terawatt-hours per year from wind, solar, biomass etc. Most of this would likely come from wind energy, say 36 terawatt-hours, or four times the 2010 target of the Wind Power Task Force.37

Assuming an established reasonable rate of return, the required investment in wind power of some $20 billion over twelve or so years would not necessarily be the main problem. (The total investment in Alberta oil, gas, and oil sands in 2001 alone was $20.6 billion.38) The more substantial problem could be the siting of what could amount to 4,000 3-megawatt turbines, many of which would likely have to be offshore. Inclusion of facilitating elements in Ontario's Smart Growth strategy could be of critical importance.

The Smart Growth strategy could also facilitate development of cogeneration, other uses of waste heat, and exploitation of deep lake-water cooling by promoting the establishment of district heating and cooling systems. The Central Ontario Zone's electrical generating stations produce enough waste heat--currently dumped into Lake Ontario--to provide district heating for a substantial portion of the Zone's buildings. What could be conceived is a massive district heating system based on a spine linking the Zone's electrical generating stations with downtown Toronto's existing major system.

The district heating system in Malmo, Sweden, is an example of the varieties of waste heat can that can be put to productive use. There, the hot-water distribution network that heats most buildings makes use of waste heat from an electric power generating plant, a refuse incinerator, a smelting plant, a sewage treatment plant, a sugar refinery, a carbon black factory, a pet crematorium, and a dung-fired boiler at the local horse-racing track.

As likely climate changes unfold, the cooling of buildings will become more important. The Central Ontario Zone is blessed by proximity to a huge reservoir of cold water suitable for this purpose, namely the depths of Lake Ontario from about five kilometres offshore. Enwave District Energy Ltd. is moving towards exploitation of this renewable resource and establishment of a district cooling system. Its deep lake-water cooling project, initiated in June 2002 with an investment of $180-million, is projected to reduce electricity use for cooling in downtown Toronto by up to 80%, according to the degree of market penetration,39 with the first use of this cold water scheduled to begin in April 2004. The potential for use of deep lake-water cooling elsewhere in Central Ontario may be huge.

28. The information in this paragraph comes from the Select Committee's June 2002 final report. The Committee had issued an interim report in November 2001 and commissioned a consultant's report (Review of Policies for the Promotion of Alternative Fuels and Technologies, Navigant Consulting Ltd., Toronto, January 2002). These reports are available respectively at the following URLs, all accessed on October 7, 2002.,
29. For an informative discussion of the prospects for fuel cell vehicles, see Brooks AN, Perspectives on fuel cell and battery electric vehicles. Paper presented at the Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) Workshop held by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), Sacramento, December 2002, available at the URL below. Accessed July 18, 2003.
30. See Page 7 of the Navigant report detailed in Footnote 28.
31. For an explanation of the measurement units, see Footnote 4 on Page 5. It follows from that explanation that if the wind-power capacity of up to 7.5 gigawatts could be achieved continuously for a year the total output would be 65.7 terawatt-hours. However, the estimate output of only 19.7 terawatt-hours means that the wind turbines were assumed to produce electrical energy at only about 30% of the theoretically possible rate (mostly because of the inherent variability of wind).
32. Except for the last sentence, which is the author's estimate, the information in this paragraph is from the report of the industry-based Ontario Wind Power Task Force, available at the URL below. Accessed October 7, 2002.
33. Figure 10 was taken from Wind Power: A survey, Swedish National Energy Administration, 2000, available at the URL below. Accessed July 18, 2003.
34. For fuller discussion of the points in this paragraph and the next two paragraphs see Issue No. 5 of the Sustainable Transportation Monitor, Centre for Sustainable Transportation, Toronto (November 2001), available at the URL below. See also the source detailed in Footnote 29. Accessed October 7, 2002.
35. See the source in Footnote 29 for a favourable assessment of prospects of battery vehicles.
36. One interesting concept is Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), which comprises fully automated small vehicles carrying 1-6 passengers running on guideways at, above or below ground providing direct origin-to-destination service. A useful review of these and other innovative technologies can be found at a Web site maintained by Jerry Schnieder of the University of Washington, at the URL below. Accessed July 18, 2003.
37. On July 3, 2003, the Ontario government introduced a Green Power Standard, whereby Ontario's electricity system will be required to secure an additional one per cent of its current electricity needs from renewable sources in each of eight years, beginning in 2006 (see the press release at the URL below). By 2014, this could thus amount to at least 8% of the current installed capacity, or about two gigawatts of what would likely be mostly wind generation capacity. (The present total generation capacity is 24.7 gigawatts.) The commitment falls short of the three-gigawatt target for 2010 proposed by the Wind Power Task Force, but it is nevertheless probably "the single biggest commitment to renewable power by any jurisdiction in North America" claimed in the government's announcement. Accessed July 18, 2003.
38. See Investment in the oil and gas industry, Department of Energy, Government of Alberta (August 2002), available at Accessed October 7, 2002.
39. For details of this estimate, contact Kevin Loughborough, Vice president, Enwave District Energy Ltd. at