Green energy puts Ontarians in the red

Date: April 13, 2016 Author: Irene Efston Categories: Blogs | News & Noteworthy
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OPINION COLUMNISTS  EISEN

Green energy puts Ontarians in the red

BEN EISEN, SPECIAL TO THE TORONTO SUN

FIRST POSTED: TUESDAY, APRIL 12, 2016 04:00 PM EDT |
UPDATED: TUESDAY, APRIL 12, 2016 04:09 PM EDT

 
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This won’t come as a surprise to most Ontarians, who have repeatedly seen rate hikes take a bite out of their budgets.

What may be surprising to some, however, is the extent to which policy choices at Queen’s Park have helped drive higher electricity prices.

Further, it may come as a disappointing surprise that many of these policy decisions have done precious little to protect the environment.

First, let’s take a look at the numbers.

Between the winters of 2005 and 2015, Ontario’s electricity prices increased by more than 50% — considerably faster than the Consumer Price Index, a common measure of inflation.

It’s also a markedly larger increase than the rest of the country has experienced (38%).

But why have electricity prices increased faster in Ontario?

One reason is Ontario’s 2009 Green Energy Act (GEA).

The GEA has contributed to higher electricity prices primarily through the creation of “feed-in-tariffs,” which are designed to encourage the generation of wind and solar power.

Feed-in-tariffs ensure the government purchases renewable (wind and solar) electricity at guaranteed rates above the market price.

The predictable result is that Ontarians pay more for electricity than we have to, and also pay more for renewables than our economic competitors.

In fact, a recent report from Ontario’s auditor general showed that in 2014, Ontario’s guaranteed prices for renewable energy were approximately twice as high as the average cost paid in the United States for wind, and three times the average American price for solar.

These policies, and the high electricity prices they drive, are putting the squeeze on household budgets across the province.

In fact, a recent analysis showed that in 2013, 7.5% of all Ontario households spent 10% or more of their household budget on in-home energy use such as lights, appliances and heating.

Unfortunately, the impact of high energy prices tends to be regressive and lower-income households tend to be hit harder.

So it’s likely that an even larger share, beyond 7.5%, of low-income households devote a substantial portion of their household budgets to electricity and home heating.

Clearly, basic energy needs now represent a significant expense and burden for many Ontario households, particularly those with low incomes.

But sadly, the evidence suggests the policies behind these prices have produced very few environmental benefits in return.

For example, a recent study found that if Ontario’s government had merely continued with ongoing retrofits to coal plants, it could have achieved comparable environmental benefits compared to the GEA — at one-tenth the cost.

Conservation and environmental protection are important objectives, but it’s essential for governments to find cost-effective green strategies.

Ontario’s approach to electricity policy has failed badly in this respect.

Ontario’s government should look for new policies that weigh all of the relevant costs and benefits, instead of continuing down the harmful path of paying above-market rates for electricity from specific, ideologically-preferred sources such as wind and solar.

Eisen is associate director of provincial prosperity studies at the Fraser Institute. This column was written with Taylor Jackson, Fraser Institute policy analyst and co-author of “Energy Costs and Canadian Households: How Much are We Spending?”