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Choppy water ahead as residents battle energy giant over proposed pump storage facility

'The scale of this is staggering,' said member of Save Georgian Bay; Potential $3-billion project pitched as a 'better use' of Ontario's 'wasted' renewable energy
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The design concept for the hydroelectric pumped storage facility proposed by TC Energy on the Meaford military base property. Photo from TC Energy website

A plan to store electricity using Georgian Bay water is either vital for Ontario’s power grid or a threat to the pristine bay – it depends on who you ask.

TC Energy, formerly TransCanada, announced a proposal in 2019 to build a hydroelectric pumped storage plant on the shore of Georgian Bay in Meaford. 

The concept is to “store” power by filling and draining a water reservoir every day, so the company needed a site with the proper elevation and proximity to a shoreline. 

The plan is to use pumps at night time, when electricity demand and pricing is low, to take water from Georgian Bay and fill a reservoir inland and 150 metres above the water level. During the day, when electricity demand is higher, the water would be returned to the bay, generating power as it goes. The power would be sold back to the provincial grid.

Jennifer Link, a TC Energy spokesperson, said the plant uses electricity that would otherwise be wasted or exported and lost, and then returns power to the grid when the demand is highest. 

“Capturing and storing clean excess electricity that you have already paid for is the core purpose of this project,” said Link.

TC Energy, which currently operates 95,000 kilometres of natural gas and liquid pipelines in North America, identified a site in Meaford on the 4th Canadian Division Land Training Centre military base, and has been exploring the feasibility of the area for the plan. 

However, area residents have joined forces to lobby tenacious opposition against the plan and formed a group called Save Georgian Bay. The group’s objective has been to inform the public about the project and also raise concerns about the design and the concept. 

“The scale of this is staggering,” noted Bruce Rodgers, an environmental consultant and member of Save Georgian Bay. “I find very few people can get their mind around the scale of this.” 

An online petition started by Save Georgian Bay calls on the House of Commons to deny the project. The group argues it is harmful to the “pristine” environment of Georgian Bay and the Niagara Escarpment; they say it will kill fish and destroy fish habitat. 

In addition to the petition to the federal government, Rodgers and Save Georgian Bay have been putting pressure on TC Energy over their proposal.

“It is their responsibility to protect the environment and community first and foremost,” said Rodgers. “We need to challenge TC Energy at every step of the process to ensure they do what’s best for the environment and our community.” 

The issue has sparked protests and demonstrations, signs in windows of businesses urging "say no" to the pump storage proposal, and several public meetings. Save Georgian Bay argues TC's plan will have impacts in every municipality that fronts on the bay. 

TC Energy claims the project is important for Ontario’s power grid and for each person paying for electricity in the province. 

The Proposal

TC Energy wants to build a reservoir adjacent to the military base's administration complex that would cover 375 acres in surface area and would be 20 metres deep. The reservoir would hold 20 million cubic metres of water. 

The water would come from Georgian Bay via intake lines that run far offshore underwater and into the bay. The water intake/outlet would tunnel beneath the lakebed into deep water and the ends of the tunnels would be raised off the lakebed where they will suck water from the bay at night time and return it during the daytime.

The reservoir would be 150 metres above the shoreline. 

The power house with the pumps and generating equipment will be contained in a building constructed underground, nearer to the reservoir. The pumps will use electricity to bring water from the bay to the reservoir at night time when power is at its cheapest.

During the day, when the demand for power is higher, the water will be released from the reservoir back into the bay using gravity. The movement of the water back to the bay will be harnessed to generate electricity. 

It will take 11 hours to pump the water from the bay to the reservoir. The station will then generate power for eight hours as it returns the water to the bay. 

The pipes being used to transport the water to and from the reservoir will also be buried underground. 

The project will cost in the range of $3 billion to complete and would be operational in 2027.

Design change

Earlier versions of the pump storage facility proposal included a design for up to one-kilometre-long breakwalls 850 metres offshore in Georgian Bay, water intakes and outputs on the shoreline, and an above-ground concrete structure for the pump house also on the shoreline. 

TC Energy changed all of that as a result of concerns raised by area residents.

“There has been much discussion in the community … the feedback that we have received has been essential and has already shaped the project development plan and the design of the facility itself,” said Link. “The project has evolved as a result of this input and is better now for it.”

Save Georgian Bay was glad to see changes to the design. 

“We’re please that they made such a change,” said Rodgers. “That’s a significant change from what they proposed originally.” 

However, Rodgers is disappointed it took opposition from neighbouring residents for TC Energy to change its proposed design. 

“It shouldn’t be a community group that tells TC Energy how they should conduct their business,” said Rodgers. “They started with a design that was completely flawed. What other things do they have in their design that we haven’t identified?” 

Rodgers said the group is left with concerns and said the changes are “reactive instead of proactive.”

“TCE pitched it as the simplest and cheapest option, and then reacted to pressure from the community,” noted Rodgers. “What other design details has TCE taken this same minimalistic approach on?”

Clean energy 

TC Energy calls the pump storage station plan “one of the largest climate change initiatives being developed in Canada.” 

According to the project website, TC Energy's proposal is both an economic and environmental solution to meeting grid storage requirements. 

“It uses renewable assets we have in Ontario and uses them in a better manner,” said TC Energy's director of power and business development, John Mikkelsen.  

“It’s actually a savings to Ontarians,” added Link. 

The Ontario Society of Professional Engineers estimated electricity exports cost Ontario between $384 and $675 million in 2016 because it was sold for less than it cost to make. The society also released a report noting Ontario exported 14.6 terawatt hours of clean energy at a loss in 2016.

“Ontario’s electricity system has a need, and this is the type of technology that fills that need,” said Link. “Once that issue was identified, this is what we proposed.”

Link and Mikkelsen said the pumped storage facility would take some of that lost electricity back for Ontario customers, reducing the overall cost of generating electricity in dollars and emissions.

But the project will not be generating the exact same amount of electricity it produces. Since it takes 11 hours to pump the water up to the reservoir and only eight hours to return it, the facility will have about a 70 to 75 per cent efficiency rate. 

For Link, that means taking a 100 per cent loss to Ontario hydro customers and turning it into a 75 per cent gain “for the benefit of Ontario consumers and environment.” 

To Rodgers, that means 25 to 30 per cent of the electricity is wasted. 

“The amount of energy they will consume as waste energy could fuel 16 Meafords,” said Rodgers. “It’s an absolute huge waste of electricity.” 

He prefers a plan from the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers to lower the cost of energy in the interest of displacing the use of natural gas by consumers, encouraging a return to electrical heating for homes and a move to electric cars. 

TC Energy hired Navigant/Guidehouse as consultants to prepare an economic analysis of the proposed storage facility. 

In the report, the consultants predicted the project will reduce CO2 emissions in Ontario by 490,000 tonnes per year. 

But the report indicates that savings are “attributable” to the project based on the assumption the power stored and regenerated at the facility would otherwise have to be generated at a gas-powered plant.

Rodgers calls the claim misleading. 

“If they build a natural gas plant, it will emit 500,000 tonnes per year of carbon dioxide. But if they build a pumped storage plant it won’t emit as much carbon dioxide,” noted Rodgers. “Therefore, by building a pump storage plant, TC Energy claims a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions simply because they decided not to build a natural gas plant.” 

For Rodgers, the carbon emissions savings touted by TC Energy are “fictitious carbon credits.”

Mikkelsen stood by this method for calculating the carbon emissions reduction figure. 

“The facility is emission-free,” said Mikkelsen. “When you tie this to the system, what you do is you displace the need to run the existing gas generation plants. It’s a net greenhouse gas emission reduction.” 

Another Save Georgian Bay affiliate, Stephen Carr, a retired electrical-chemical engineer, wrote an assessment of the project which also challenges TC Energy’s CO2 reduction claims. 

His report suggests there's a need to look beyond just Ontario's grid when considering emissions.

Ontario produces more power than it can use during off-peak production. Nuclear plants cannot simply increase or decrease power generation on-demand, so they produce excess when it is not always needed. 

Ontario sells some of that power to some of the U.S. border states at a reduced rate.

Those states still use coal as an energy source to varying degrees, and will reduce the amount of coal burning at generating stations when they receive energy from Ontario. 

According to Carr’s report, CO2 output from those coal-burning generating stations is reduced directly by having access to Ontario power. 

“TC Energy’s claim that the pumped storage station will eliminate the need for natural gas-powered generation during on-peak durations in Ontario is therefore negated with the CO2 reductions which are currently being realized by U.S. coal generators that are using our off-peak clean energy,” wrote Carr. 

He also argues there will be hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 produced through the construction of the pumped storage facility and reservoir, plus the clear-cutting of land necessary for the facility. 

A research fellow and associate professor at the Australian National University (ANU), Dr. Matthew Stocks, sees potential in pump storage plants to create a grid to support peak demand with renewable energy and reduced carbon emissions. 

He said peak energy will often come from gas-powered plants and by using a pumped storage facility like a battery, gas usage would be reduced. 

"The benefit to Ontario should be lower electricity prices due to shifting energy from times of excess energy to times of peak demand," said Stocks.  

Stocks receives funding from Australian Renewable Energy Agency, and confirmed he is not affiliated or funded by TC Energy.

Stocks and a team of researchers from ANU published an audit in 2019 identifying 530,000 sites worldwide where potential exists for pumped storage hydropower projects.

According to the research, if fewer than one per cent of those sites were developed into pumped storage facilities, they would support a global 100 per cent renewable electricity grid.

While the sites themselves would not generate electricity for the world (since they use more power than they return), they could store power generated and release it as demand calls for it. The power could be generated by other renewable resources that don't otherwise have the capacity to store power as it is generated. 

The audit used Geographic Information System (GIS) algorithms and publicly available GIS data to find sites based on coordinates, elevation, water surface area, storage capacity, dam length, and volume.

The sites identified on the audit would not necessarily work for pumped storage facilities, but the idea was to "facilitate the decision making of local administrative authorities and private developers." The research indicates a more detailed analysis of the sites would be required before a pump storage station could be built. 

The audit identified sites between Collingwood and Flesherton and south toward Shelburne. There are no sites identified in Meaford, but the proposed site is on a military base and there is limited publicly available topographical information for Canadian military sites. 

High-voltage power lines 

Due to the level of power needed by and generated at the proposed pumping station, local power lines won’t cut it. The project would require a network of high voltage power lines running from the site at the Meaford military base to a transfer station in Essa, close to Barrie. 

“It needs to be connected to a point in the system that is robust and high voltage … and the closest station that meets those points is the hydro transformer station in Essa,” said Mikkelsen. 

TC Energy officials said the route for the high voltage lines has not been determined, but it could be underwater or on land from Meaford to Essa. If it’s underwater, it would likely exit somewhere around Collingwood to travel the rest of the distance on land. 

Fish and water quality 

While some of the water quality and fish protection concerns of Save Georgian Bay have been mitigated by taking the water intake and returns offshore and into deeper waters, the change has also raised new concerns. 

Rodgers said there’s a fish called cisco, which has experienced a decline in population in recent decades. It has habitat offshore and deeper in Georgian Bay. He’s worried about the inevitability of fish being sucked into the pump house and destroyed as water is pulled into the reservoir. 

TC Energy officials stated fish habitat and protection of fish will be considered and studied for the project before it is built. 

“If it’s deemed that this project would have a negative impact [on fish and water quality] then we wouldn’t be allowed to build it,” said Link. 

She noted the design of the inlet and outlets, which would be raised above the lakebed but still underwater, is meant to reduce the potential to create turbidity at the intake site.

“While field surveys are needed to confirm local conditions, available data indicates the anticipated location is not near sensitive fish habitat,” said Link. “The design of the inlet and outlet structures will include screens and withdraw and discharge water at lower velocities to further protect fish that may be present.” 

Dr. Stocks said good design of the pump storage plant should minimize impact to fish. 

"This should be part of the environmental impact studies," he said.

 As for turbidity and drinking water, Stocks said neither should be negatively impacted provided the design is sound and the outlet is built in a way that slows the water as it re-enters the lake. 

"Pumped hydro should have no impact on the quality of water from the lake for drinking," he said. "The amount of water that is being moved in and out of the plant is small in comparison to the amount of water that would flow into the lake from surrounding rivers. These would have a bigger impact on the overall turbidity of the lake." 

What's next?

The proposed hydroelectric pumped storage facility in Meaford is at the beginning of several years of assessment and provincial and federal approvals. 

“This project will have numerous regulatory approval processes,” said Link. “There will be studies around water quality, fish, fish habitat, and the environment generally. We’re not there yet.” 

Though the studies were slated to begin in 2020, the project is still in the feasibility assessment stage. Some of the early research includes looking at topographic conditions and physical features of the site, measuring the depth of the lakebed, sampling sentiment and consistency of the lakebed, and characterizing the bedrock elevations and quality as well as establishing groundwater levels. 

Crown Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (a branch of the Canadian government) has given TC Energy a permit under the Dominion Water Power Act for the preliminary feasibility studies. 

The project has to get a go-ahead from the Department of National Defence since it would be located on the base and staff and crews would need access to the construction site and eventual pump storage facility on military base land.

Canada’s Department of National Defence is accepting public comments until July 31, 2020. 

Save Georgian Bay has a page of resources and contact information related to submitting comments on the TC Energy proposal here. TC Energy also has contact information posted here.

You can go directly to the Government of Canada website to comment on the proposed hydroelectric project at the 4th Canadian Division Training Centre in Meaford by clicking here.

TC Energy estimates the pump storage plant could be operational by 2027, and there will be three years of regulatory and environmental studies and processes to complete before shovels can even go in the ground. 

TC energy will be hosting a virtual community information session with a question period for the public on July 22 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. You can register for the event online by clicking this link.

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Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter and editor. She has 15 years of experience as a local journalist
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