I watched the election debate with friends last night.

There was a familiar, and almost tired, theme to it: NDP leader Howard Hampton and the Progressive Conservative leader John Tory attacking Premier McGuinty for his broken promises.

A secondary theme that came out in the debate concerned Ontario’s place in Confederation and in North America. John Tory noted again and again how Ontario is lagging – in jobs, economic growth and post secondary education.

None of the parties, however, explicitly talked about how Ontario is set to be a global laggard in the development of renewable energy.

An hour into the debate moderator Steve Paikin asked whether new nuclear stations were needed. Two parties – the Liberals and the Conservatives – said yes. One party – the NDP – said no.

There was, however, an important nuance between the two pro-nuclear parties – John Tory was honest and upfront about his nuclear ambitions. Premier McGuinty, on the other hand, tried to downplay his support for nuclear energy in an attempt to position himself between the unapologetic pro-nuclear stance of John Tory and the anti-nuclear, pro-conservation position of Howard Hampton.

When one considers Premier McGuinty’s energy plans, however, it’s obvious that the only real difference between him and John Tory on nuclear power is spin.

Just prior to the election, the McGuinty government released its final 20-year electricity plan. Central to the plan is building an astonishing 14,000 megawatts (MW) of new nuclear capacity worth $46 billion. To put this in context, there is only 17,000 MW of nuclear generation under construction in the whole world today. While trying to minimize his commitment to nuclear, Premier McGuinty has committed Ontario to the biggest nuclear construction boom in the world.

Yes, John Tory has said he will build ‘more’ nuclear and build it ‘faster’ than the Liberals, but it’s difficult to envision how this could be done. Last year, the Liberals initially said they would only build 2 new reactors. Today they’re moving ahead with approvals for eight reactors. The Liberals also exempted their electricity plan and the construction of reactors from provincial environmental assessments to fast-track their construction. Simply put, McGuinty has already done what Tory has said he would do – build more reactors faster.

Despite Tory’s frequent references to where Ontario stands relative to other jurisdictions on issues of economy and education, none of the other leaders threw down the gauntlet to say we need to make Ontario a leader of renewable energy.

Do we really want to Ontario to be a world leader in 1970s nuclear technology in 2025? If McGuinty and Tory’s nuclear energy plans are implemented we will be. We will also be back of the pack in the development renewable and clean energy technologies.

Premier McGuinty touted his support for renewable energy, saying Ontario has the “fastest growing renewable sector in North America.” In reality, his plan puts a cap the development of renewable energy in Ontario at less than 5000 MW over the next twenty years. Why? If you’re planning to spend billions building new nuclear stations, which you hope you will come on line around 2018 – 2019, you need to put a cap on renewables and other clean sources of energy in order to ensure there is demand for the electricity from the new nuclear plants.

Don’t be fooled. 5000 MW is small change when you compare it to what other leading jurisdictions have already done.

It also shows that despite claims that we need to go nuclear and continue to rely on coal, our political leaders haven’t set out to put Ontario at the forefront of the emerging renewable energy economy. Our energy planners still consider renewables an add-on to our energy policy.

Do we need new nuclear stations in Ontario? I would agree with Howard Hampton: no we don’t. As a recent study by the Pembina Institute and WWF shows, we can phase out coal and nuclear over the next twenty years if we invest in a modern portfolio of energy options - conservation, renewables and local, decentralized generation.

If we accept that we have the untapped clean energy potential the flipside to this question is: what kind of energy system do we want for Ontario? Do we maintain the status quo, spend billions on nuclear mega-projects and stunt the growth of green alternatives?

Or, do we chart a course to make Ontario a leader in modern, clean and renewable sources of energy? None of the leaders responded to Paikin’s question saying their objective is to make Ontario a world leader in green energy. Too bad, the public is ready for this message.

As I mentioned, John Tory is concerned about Ontario lagging in economic development, jobs, education. According to John Tory, leadership matters.

Mr. Tory (and Premier McGuinty) should take this into account when he considers Ontario’s energy future. Being a leader in 1970s nuclear technology in 2025 is not only an environmental problem. Ontario’s current nuclear course guarantees that we will miss the boat on the developing a renewable energy industry. We’ll also miss out the green jobs and economy that’s developing elsewhere.