"Ontarians can't imagine that we could be short of energy, but we are perilously close to that now," he warned.
An aging nuclear infrastructure and the current Liberal government's pledge to shut down coal plants for public health and environmental reasons are causing major power consumers in the province to lose sleep, as electricity prices escalate and confidence in the adequacy of future supply becomes an issue.
The tough choices boil down to coal or nuclear, suggested Conway, who retired from politics in 2003 following a 28-year career as an Ontario cabinet minister and Liberal Member of the Legislative Assembly.
"In my 30 years of public life, the one thing I generally found was that the one option I never had was some celestial, heavenly ideal. I was always
forced to deal in the real world of second and third choices."
Resource development and energy policy have been centre stage in Ontario for 100 years, Conway reminded industry leaders, who had meetings
scheduled that afternoon with cabinet ministers and senior civil servants to air mining industry concerns.
In 1906, then Mines Minister Frank Cochrane, a Sudbury businessman, introduced a new Mining Act, and 100 years ago in June, London, Ontario, cigar box manufacturer and politician Adam Beck spearheaded the establishment of a publicly owned hydroelectric power commission.
Also on the public agenda at the time was the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway, a provincially funded enterprise aimed at opening up the region's vast resource wealth. In 1905, as railway workers drove the line north, "the motherlode of all motherlodes of silver" was discovered near present-day Cobalt, sparking one of the greatest mining rushes of all time.
"Much of the wealth to be seen in Rosedale [a posh neighbourhood in Toronto] is a direct result of that railway and the mineral wealth that funneled down here by the tens of millions of dollars," said Conway, underlining the role that mining has played in the development of the province.
Power generated by the public utility established by Beck provided Ontario with cheap and reliable energy until 1960, when the limits of hydropower
and increasing demand for electricity sparked a search for alternative power sources.
A key theme running through the history of public energy policy, "was the notion of self-sufficiency," so the decision to focus on nuclear power beginning in the 1960's wasn't surprising, suggested Conway.
"We had the uranium [in Elliot Lake], we had the manufacturing capacity and we had the Candu nuclear technology at Chalk River. We had it all."
By 1992, 62 per cent of the total electricity output in Ontario came from three nuclear stations, said Conway.
"It's important to remember why we did some of the things we did and for government to understand the close relationship between reliable, affordable energy inputs and the vibrancy and strength of this economy."
Liquid natural gas is cited as one energy option, but 60 per cent of LNG reserves are in Qatar, Russia and Iran - "not the most stable places in the world," said Conway. Tapping hydropower from Northern Manitoba, another possibility, would require the construction of transmission lines through First Nation territories in Northern Ontario, and "you are not going to do that overnight," he warned.
Conway urged industry leaders to find ways "to engage and inform the public about the real choices, the costs and the consequences of those choices."