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A green energy future for Ontario

Thursday, November 10, 2005

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Four weeks ago, I wrote a column questioning the McGuinty government’s plan to stake Ontario’s energy future on nuclear power, despite the fact that nuclear had long proven to be expensive, unreliable and environmentally unsound.

I closed that column by asserting that I would “write another column soon on where the solutions do lie”. I don’t know how much clearer I could have been, but I still got several e-mails and phone calls from readers who challenged me on the absence of alternatives in that I presented. This is the followup piece that I promised to write (so, please don’t call or write to ask “But, what’s wrong with nuclear?”, since that’s already been covered).

Ontario can meet (or curtail) its growing demand for electricity in three main ways:

1) By increasing generation of hydro-electric power in Ontario and purchasing more hydro-electric power from Manitoba, Quebec and even Labrador (thereby strengthening the demand for the development of an east-west energy grid);

2) By dramatically increasing investments in other sustainable energy sources such as wind, solar, biomass (which would also assist in solving a waste management problem) and geothermal (which take advantage of the fact that 50 percent of the sun's energy is absorbed by the earth); and

3) By aggressively pursuing conservation initiatives and providing incentives to consumers (such as those adopted by California, which saved 10,000 megawatts a year through its conservation programs).

A report released last fall by the David Suzuki Foundation illustrated how “Ontario can add at least $9 billion to its economy and create 25,000 new jobs by 2010 if the province uses renewable energy [including expanded hydro-electric] to power its electricity system... In return, the province will get a more reliable, cost-effective electricity system, cleaner air, tens of thousands of new jobs, and the development of a vibrant industry. Many countries around the world are already reaping the economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy,” said Suzuki. “Ontario seems to be unaware it is sitting on a goldmine that will solve its electricity and air pollution problems.”

The report shows how Ontario could install as much as 8,000 megawatts of wind power by 2012 (four times the amount currently projected by the Ontario government, but a target achieved by Germany between 1990 and 2004), which would meet roughly nine per cent of electricity demand – around the same percentage currently served by coal. “Wind energy offers a new cash crop for Ontario farmers, potentially pumping billions into the rural economy,” said Paul Gipe, author of the report’s wind chapter. “Wind turbines require only a very small land area, in some cases allowing farmers to plow to the base of the towers. Farmers, by either leasing their land to wind developers or by installing the wind turbines themselves, can earn tens of thousands of dollars per year in revenue while continuing to produce their traditional crops.”

Ontario’s electricity system is currently structured in such a way that conservation is actually discouraged. As David MacKinnon, Executive Director of the Ontario Public Health Association, noted in a letter to the Ontario Energy Board (OAB), the provinced “discourages energy conservation by linking profits to electricity sales alone. We believe that this trend should be reversed; that the OEB must adopt policies that reward the actions needed by utilities to reduce energy demand.”

Besides reforming its pricing system, Ontario could tighten up the building code and product standards to require more dramatically higher energy efficiency. It could also develop a rebate program for energy efficient appliances (refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, and clothes washers). In 2004, Saskatchewan spent just over a million dollars on rebates, saving consumers over 4 million kWh or $400,000 over the course of the year. By adopting a similar program, as well as programs to encourage the replacement of inefficient lighting and the installation of electronic ballasts (which, unlike traditional magnetic ballasts, consume almost no power), Ontario could help to negate the need for its massive spending on nuclear infrastructure.

As well, Ontario could accelerate the move toward “smart meters” which encourage customers to move their energy consumption to off-peak hours. You may have noticed that this program was re-announced just last week (for, by my count, the fourth time) by new Energy Minister Donna Cansfield, but the target date for full implementation isn’t until 2010.

American author Jeremy Rifkin reports that the European Union’s Green Paper on Energy Efficiency estimates that EU states “could save at least 20 percent of their present energy consumption for a net savings of 60 billion euros per year, by enacting tough energy conservation programs across European society – in homes, commercial buildings, factories, and transport. [It also] says the average EU and American household could save as much as $1,200 per year in cost-saving energy efficient practices, thus offsetting much of the increased price of oil.”

People who are much more knowledgeable than I am (on this subject, at least) are convinced that Ontario can meet its energy needs without coal and without further expansion or refurbishment of nuclear capacity. We have the ingenuity, we have the technology and we have the incentive, so let’s do it.

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