Economic Development News & Insight


The Higher ED Blog: From brownfields to green energy? Converting Ontario’s decommissioned coal plants to renewable energy generators

Tara Vinodrai / November 2, 2015

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The Higher ED Blog: From brownfields to green energy? Converting Ontario’s decommissioned coal plants to renewable energy generators

With the upcoming United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris, debates about how to achieve a sustainable future are front and centre. While much of the discussion has focused on international agreements and national policies, there are questions about what kinds of actions can be taken at the local or regional level. Not surprisingly, a number of students in our Local Economic Development graduate program have been keenly interested in issues related to sustainability and the green economy. Over the next 12 months, we will dive into some of the major research papers completed by our graduate students on this very topic, ranging from the sustainability initiatives of particular local industries to the community sustainability plans implemented through participation in Local Agenda 21 initiatives. We start this series by looking at a topic that is very familiar to economic developers: brownfield redevelopment.

From brownfields to green energy?

Brownfield redevelopment is often discussed in terms of environmental issues, particularly due to the remediation efforts that are often involved. But can brownfields be redeveloped to power the green economy? In 2007, the Government of Ontario introduced a Cessation of Coal Use Regulation that set out to close all Ontario coal-energy plants by 2014. This policy decision was a first in North America and, as such, garnered substantial media attention. As a result of this decision, all five of Ontario’s coal energy producing sites, owned by Ontario Power Generation (OPG), were decommissioned and were under consideration for conversion to alternative uses. There are compelling reasons for these particular brownfield sites to be redeveloped for renewable energy production: the sites are already connected to Ontario’s electricity grid, there are reputational gains associated with taking tangible actions addressing climate change, there is an opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, there is potential to create economic opportunities, and – because there is no land use conversion – there are fewer costs related to remediation.

Working under the supervision of UW professors Michael Wood and Geoff Lewis, Grace Arabian sought to understand this very issue by asking the question: What are the energy and economic benefits of turning OPG owned generating sites into solar and wind farms? She analyzed the five decommissioned coal plants, as well as three natural gas plants (1 decommissioned, 2 active) that offered potential for green energy development: Atikokan, Lakeview, Thunder Bay, Lambton, Nanticoke, Lennox, Brighton and the Portlands Energy Centre. Two of these sites (Atikokan, Thunder Bay) are being converted to biomass generating stations. Yet, there are still opportunities to include other renewable energy projects on the sites. Between 2004 and 2011, these eight sites produced over 162 million tonnes of CO2, making them large contributors to Ontario’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Closing them has resulted in a major reduction in emissions; however, the decommissioning of the five coal plants has also meant a reduction of 6,428 megawatts (MW) in Ontario’s energy supply system, as well as the loss of some of the 929 jobs involved in these operations.

Grace used spatial and economic modelling techniques to determine the renewable energy and job creation potential of these sites under two scenarios using two different technologies (conversion to wind or solar) and with different levels of land availability. In the first scenario, these brownfield sites were entirely converted to solar or wind energy farms. In the other scenario, these same eight sites were converted to solar or wind farms, using only 10%, 30%, or 50% of the available land: a mixed-use approach. To assess wind and solar energy potential of these specific sites, Grace used data from Statistics Canada, Natural Resources Canada, and the Ontario Wind Energy Atlas, as well as site specific information from Ontario Power Generation and TransCanada Energy. Grace utilized the Jobs and Economic Impact (JEDI) model developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to assess both the short-term and long-term job creation potential associated with redeveloping these sites as wind or solar farms. While JEDI uses local and state-level US data, she argued that using data from New York State, which shares a similar industrial structure to the Ontario economy, offers a reasonable substitute in the Ontario case.

Overall, Grace found that both the solar and wind energy generation potential of these sites varied widely due to local conditions. If all eight sites were converted to solar, an additional 150,561 MWh could be contributed to the Ontario electricity system; this is equivalent to 62.7% of the energy currently provided by solar power generation in the province. If all eight sites were converted to wind, there is potential to create 173,030 MWh of electricity. Wind currently supplies only 3.9% of Ontario’s energy mix so such initiatives would contribute to increasing the total wind supply across Ontario. However, the sites included in the study were smaller than most wind farms in Ontario. For example, Atikokan, Lakeview, Brighton Beach Power, and Portlands Energy Centre could support fewer than 5 turbines using the entire sites. However, Lambton, Lennox and Nanticoke could fit 18-24 turbines. In terms of job creation, the models yield some interesting results (Table 1). Clearly, the construction phase is where most of the impact is felt in terms of job creation, with the long-term job creation prospects for such initiatives being far more modest.

Table 1: Job creation potential from solar and wind energy redevelopment

Jobs – Construction Jobs – Operations Jobs – Construction Jobs – Operations
Scenario 1 (100%) 3,329 31 2,217 41
Scenario 2a (10%) 333 3 363 8
Scenario 2b (30%) 1,002 10 729 15
Scenario 2c (50%) 1,608 15 1,206 22


Based on her results, Grace suggested a mixed approach (Scenarios 2a-2c), whereby site redevelopment could include a renewable energy project (solar or wind) as part of the redevelopment initiative. For example, on the two sites already being converted to biomass generation, there remains potential for the installation of wind turbines or solar panels.

Converting these Ontario brownfield sites for renewable energy production offers an avenue towards sustainable economic development in communities. But, as Grace notes:

Overall, the energy gains from wind and solar farms cannot replace the lost capacity of the coal and natural gas electricity, nor the lost jobs from the decommissioning and closure of these plants. However, the purpose of this study is not to find ways to replace this lost capacity, but to provide an alternative to leaving the land vacant and unused.

Moreover, as with every study, there are limitations that should not be overlooked. In this study, considerations such as the migratory patterns of birds and the social and political dynamics of the communities involved were not incorporated into the technical analysis. For example, nearby communities may have diverse (and strong) opinions related to such projects, as has been the case so far with the location of wind turbines in local communities. While renewable energy development offers a potential path towards contributing to our sustainable future, that path may not always be easy.

About the authors

Dr. Tara Vinodrai is Director of the Local Economic Development graduate program at the University of Waterloo and Assistant Editor of Higher Ed blog. She is an expert on urban economies, regional development, innovation and clusters, and the creative/cultural economy. Follow her on Twitter @TaraVinodrai.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

3 responses to “The Higher ED Blog: From brownfields to green energy? Converting Ontario’s decommissioned coal plants to renewable energy generators”

  1. […] of our time here at Higher Ed exploring issues related to sustainability and the green economy (starting with a new use for Ontario’s decommissioned coal plants). Debates rage about what changes are needed and what policy instrument will work best to address […]

  2. […] of our time here at Higher Ed exploring issues related to sustainability and the green economy (starting with a new use for Ontario’s decommissioned coal plants). Debates rage about what changes are needed and what policy instrument will work best to address […]

  3. […] been a big year for the Higher ED Blog. We published 30 articles (not including this one) on green economy, business incubation, rural broadband, inland ports, and many more topics. Back in June, I attended […]