Editorial 

No leadership on energy issues

On Tuesday of last week the federal government announced some details of a $1 billion plan that is supposed to begin to address Canada’s commitment to reducing pollution, in particular greenhouse gas emissions, under the Kyoto environmental accord.

"Scientists have sounded the warning," Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said in making the announcement. "It is our responsibility to act. It is our moral responsibility."

Within that initial $1 billion, $131.4 million will be used to coax consumers to be more energy efficient. As Environment Canada states on its Web site, "Any improvement in energy efficiency helps reduce the emissions related to the production of that energy."

Two days after Chrétien made his announcement the power went out in southern Ontario and several north-east states, affecting an estimated 50 million people. As power was slowly restored over the next few days, people and industries were asked to conserve energy until the system was brought back up to full capacity, which may happen by this weekend.

Many people complied with that request, including some car manufacturers and steel makers that ceased production; some people did not, such as the Toronto man who spent an hour using an electric weed eater to trim his lawn on Sunday.

But as temperatures climbed during the middle of this week, energy demands in Ontario rose with them. By Wednesday the province was importing energy from Quebec in order to prevent rolling blackouts.

Even though no one is quite sure why the blackout occurred, the debate in Ontario now, less than a week after Chrétien’s Kyoto announcement, is whether the long-term strategy should be to conserve energy or increase energy production. You can guess which option is more likely to become reality.

It’s an all-too-typical Canadian response; one arm of the federal government will spend a few hundred million dollars on a campaign to appear to do the responsible thing while another will side with popular opinion and work against that goal.

Here in B.C., on the day the eastern blackout occurred, the provincial government announced at the new Furry Creek hydro project that penstocks on run-of-river hydro projects would henceforth be tax exempt. The announcement puts run-of-river projects, like Furry Creek, Rutherford Creek and more than 100 others that are proposed for this corridor, on equal footing with other "green" energy production sources.

B.C. Hydro has voluntarily committed to acquire a percentage of new energy from green sources , such as run-of-river projects. That has sparked a frenzy of applications by private developers to develop run-of-river projects across the province. It’s also in keeping with the provincial government’s commitment to public-private partnerships, or P3s. Hydro will continue to own the power lines, the means of transmission and distribution, but new energy generation will come from the private sector.

One of the concerns with this approach is that private energy developers are given free reign to stake out prospective rivers. There doesn’t appear to be an overall strategy for assessing run-of-river projects. Instead projects are evaluated on an individual basis. But how many are needed and how many rivers in a region should become power producers and how many should be left in their natural state has not been addressed.

Meanwhile, B.C. Hydro is selling "green" energy generated by run-of-river projects and other green sources at a premium: seven cents per kilowatt hour compared to the regular price of five cents per kilowatt hour. Last year Whistler became one of 20 charter customers that agreed to pay the higher price, for energy used at the new Spring Creek firehall. "By purchasing Green Power Certificates they are supporting the development of additional green energy in B.C.," Brenda Goehring, manager of B.C. Hydro’s Green and Alternative Energy Division, said at the time.

While a handful of run-of-river projects are preferable to a new dam or another coal-fired generation plant as an energy source, the fundamental issue of how much energy we need and how we use it is again being pushed into the background. Canadians have for years been the highest or among the highest consumers of energy per capita in the world. B.C. Hydro, like other hydro utilities across the country, has a program to promote energy conservation but its fundamental business is selling energy. The more it sells the better the revenue for the province – exports of energy out of the province produced more than $1 billion for government coffers three years ago.

To date, "green energy" is more a new way to market a product than an effort to replace more environmentally harmful methods of energy production.

While one might think that last week’s massive blackout would cause us to reflect on our energy consumption it has, for the most part, instead spurred thoughts of finding additional energy sources. There’s little money to be made in conservation, but there is money for both governments and the private sector in energy production.

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