A proposal to build a new natural-gas-powered electricity generation facility in the east-end port lands is a good first step toward cleaner energy for the city, local politicians and environmentalists say. “We’ve got a very serious air pollution problem, and the largest sources of air pollution are Ontario Power Generation’s dirty coal-fired power plants,” says Jack Gibbons of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance. “We see natural gas as a very good transition fuel to get us off coal and move us toward renewables. Natural gas, because it’s a fossil fuel, is not perfect, but it’s dramatically cleaner than coal.”

The results of an environmental screening on the proposal (conducted by consultants hired by Ontario Power Generation, which is to build the facility) were to be released at a public meeting on May 7.

The detailed results of that screening were not available at press time, but Portlands Energy Centre (PEC) spokesperson Dave Abbott spoke generally about what would be presented. “What we’ve looked at is air quality, human health, water quality, whether after this thing is built there will be a significant impact to the soil, about the construction, the aquatic biology (which is the lake) and the terrestrial biology (which is the surface plants) … in terms of the environmental assessment of all those factors — this is subject to speaking to people in the community — there’s no information that would be a reason not to proceed.”

MPP Marilyn Churley (Toronto-Danforth) originally opposed the proposal, but says she’s changed her mind after doing some research. “My initial reaction was, ‘We need to be investing more and more in efficiency conservation and green power,'” she says, but after talking to experts, “I believe the co-generation plant in the port lands is something that will be necessary to achieve our No. 1 goal of shutting the coal-fuelled plants down.”

The proposed centre would be located on Unwin, just east of the decommissioned Hearn generating station. The plant would use what is called combined-cycle generating, which uses both gas and steam to produce electricity, a process that is typically nearly 50 per cent more efficient than conventional generators. In addition, the plans call for a process called co-generation, whereby leftover steam that might otherwise be lost is used to directly heat and cool local buildings. Solar panels on the roof of the facility are also planned. If built, the PEC could provide as much as 10 per cent of Toronto’s electricity.

In addition to the support of Churley and Gibbons, the PEC proposal has received tentative endorsements from others who’ve opposed recent project proposals in the port lands, such as Sandra Bussin (Ward 32 Beaches-East York), the Toronto Environmental Alliance and the Green Party of Ontario. Still, some local residents are suspending judgment until the results of the environmental assessment are clear.

“If we’re closing down stacks — because of the air pollution in the city of Toronto and the southern part of Ontario — to get cleaner air, we wouldn’t want something else going in that is going to add more air pollution,” says Karen Buck of the South Riverdale-based Citizens for a Safe Environment. She says she’s going to be following the process closely, but generally feels that burning fossil fuels is a step backwards. “Those subsidies should be going into something that is making a change in the way we live in the 21st century [such as conservation and solar power], and we should be doing things that are sustainable.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly May 8, 2003.