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Sir Adam Beck Generating Station a major power driver

Peter Caulfield
Sir Adam Beck Generating Station a major power driver

If you’re an Ontario contractor, you might not know all the different sources of the electricity you use to complete your projects.

In 2016 the supply mix in Ontario’s high-voltage electrical system was 61 per cent nuclear, 24 per cent hydroelectric, nine per cent natural gas, six per cent wind, and less than one per cent solar and bio fuel.

An additional four percent of total energy production is in the lower-voltage distribution system. Approximately one-half is solar and the other half is wind, hydroelectric, natural gas and bio fuel.

That’s the situation now. But when Ontario’s electricity industry was founded at the turn of the 20th century, the juice was generated entirely from falling water. In 1900, a total of 400,000 horsepower was in development on the Niagara River.

At the time, however, it wasn’t clear for whom Ontario’s hydroelectricity resources were going to be developed — for big city investors, or small-business and residential consumers throughout southern Ontario.

Enter Adam — later Sir Adam — Beck.

Beck was a natural-born go-getter. When he was still in his 20s, he and his brother started a cigar-box manufacturing company in present-day Cambridge, Ont.

In 1885 he moved the company to London, Ont., where it quickly flourished and established Beck as a wealthy and influential civic leader. Beck also had the time for horse racing and breeding, for which he won numerous prizes, as well as tennis and lawn bowling.

In 1900, the ever-restless Beck founded the London Health Association, which would later become the University and Victoria Hospitals.

In 1902, he was elected mayor of London and a few months later was elected to the Ontario legislature. In addition to business, recreation and politics, Beck was interested in developing the Ontario economy.

He was an early and prominent advocate of publicly-owned electricity grids, in opposition to the privately-owned companies which, he believed, did not adequately serve the needs of the public.

With the slogan "Power at Cost," Beck chaired a provincial board of enquiry that suggested creating a municipally-owned hydroelectric system, funded by the provincial government and using water from Niagara Falls and other Ontario lakes and rivers.

In 1906, Beck became the first chairman of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission. The body was the first publicly-owned electricity utility in Ontario and later became Ontario Hydro.

In 1914, Beck was knighted by King George V for his promotion of electricity and development of transmission lines.

Although Beck died in 1925, his name lives on in numerous public buildings in Ontario. In Toronto, there is a statue of Beck (the Adam Beck Memorial) at the intersection of University Avenue and Queen Street West.

In addition, there are the Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Generating Stations at Niagara Falls.

Sir Adam Beck Generating Station I, Sir Adam Beck Generating Station II and the Sir Adam Beck Pump Generating Station are all owned by Ontario Power Generation.

Adam Beck I contains 10 generators and first produced power in 1922. It was originally called the Queenston-Chippawa Hydroelectric Plant and was renamed after Adam Beck in 1950.

The first large-scale hydroelectric generation project in the world, Adam Beck I was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990.

Adam Beck II contains 16 generators and first produced power in 1954. The water was first diverted from the Niagara River by two five-mile tunnels underneath Niagara Falls.

According to Ontario historian H.V. Nelles, Ontario Hydro, as the Hydro-Electric Power Commission came to be called, was a public ownership exception to the North American pattern of how electrical generation and distribution was organized.

For a long time the rest of the country operated differently. In other provinces, there were either lightly regulated privately owned systems, as in Quebec and British Columbia, or a mix of public and private organizations.

But the other provinces were watching and learning, as Ontario’s system of electrical generation and distribution led to the development of many new industries — aluminum, paper, carbide, abrasives, chemical and electro-metallurgical.

After 1940, there was a series of provincial nationalizations of private utilities and the formation of large, integrated provincially-owned electrical systems with a mandate to expand.

Quebec began the process in 1944 with the provincial takeover of Montreal Light, Heat and Power. Major system expansion also took place in Saskatchewan (1945), Manitoba (1956), New Brunswick and British Columbia (1961).

Quebec completed its process in 1963 with the nationalization of the remaining private hydro-electric producers, municipal utilities and rural co-operatives.

Nova Scotia and Newfoundland provincialized their electric companies in the early 1970’s. By 1970, three-quarters of electric output originated in the public sector and only 10 percent in the private sector.

Today, says Nelles, hydro-electricity represents a diminishing proportion of total electricity production. Nuclear and coal-fired generating stations now serve the base load in many parts of the country.

Nelles says the future of electricity seems to belong to green energy, wind, gas turbines, fuel cells and a more distributed web, rather than mammoth hydro-electric dams and centralized systems.

And in some provinces, deregulation movements are breaking up the large monolithic public monopolies to create openings for private competition in generation and distribution.

The main driver of the change in the electricity supply mix is air pollution, says Paul Acchione, who is a member of the energy task force of the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers.

"The Green Energy Act in 2009 created incentives for the deployment of renewable generation technologies, including wind, solar, sustainable bio-fuel and small hydroelectric generation," said Acchione.

The sources of supply will continue to change in the future to reflect the costs of each technology and environmental commitments for greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), he says.

"Ontario’s electricity system has already achieved a greenhouse gas emission reduction of 80 per cent compared to 1990 levels," Acchione said. "But the other economic sectors have not had as much success in reducing their emissions."

To meet government goals for GHG emission reductions across the economy, Acchione says it appears there will need to be a switch to electricity from other sources of energy.

"The vast majority of new megawatts capacity in the past 15 years has been nuclear, natural gas, wind and solar," Acchione said. "There has also been a modest increase in hydroelectric capacity. In the future, if the electrification of other sectors — transportation, buildings and industry — continues at the same pace, additional electrical capacity will be required."

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