Finally some realistic talk about energy in Nova Scotia

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It's 10 to 20 years late, but we're finally getting some realistic talk about what we're facing regarding energy. The government's renewable electricity plan, unveiled a week ago, raises consciousness about this much higher than what we've been used to.

It acknowledges the problems and limitations of the various options -- including its controversial biomass project. It damps down our longstanding Nova Scotian fantasy of an electricity strategy based on exports and does the same with the bizarre and pointless claim cooked up by former premier Rodney MacDonald that we'll be leading the world in green energy by 2020.

Feed-in laws - fixed prices for green energy producers -- will be introduced at the community level and smaller, a move that puts us among the leaders in that regard, along with a planning office to help the smaller producers get going. A "renewable energy administrator" will be named to manage competitive bids for energy, taking it out of the hands of the privatized Nova Scotia Power Inc. "Smart technology" and "smart meters" to more efficiently manage power loads will be pushed forward, and the transmission system upgraded to the new reality. Municipalities will be drawn in, the regulatory system overhauled, and more.

The plan deals only with electricity, and is the first step in a broader whole-energy policy aimed for later this year. As such, it is a work in progress, with intiatives, plans and working groups aimed in all directions. This is progress.

That said, some crucial things are still distinctly not progress.

One of them concerns solar energy and the lack of official appreciation of what it can do to relieve our problem with regard to both electricity and oil. While we pursue wind with an official passion that may be excessive, solar power advances by baby steps on its own, more or less out of sight. Solar heating is rated as relieving 50 to 75 per cent of standard energy needs for domestic hot water and space heating (either to supplement your hot-water furnace, or air-to-air), with a six- to seven-year payback based on energy savings, after which it's free. Broadly applied, this would be an enormous help in reducing energy demand -- both electric and oil.

Yet, it's hardly in sight, presumed to be the stuff of eccentrics. The official view is that it's "not here yet" or we have too much fog, both of which are bunk. The advanced jurisdictions of Europe, some far to the north of us, are full of it. To get it here, you have to be educated about it to begin with, fish for it, then look around for someone to install it if you're not technically adept yourself. The same with geothermal, another very useful low-energy heating source.

Frankly, I consider it close to outrageous that, thanks to government drag, people are still building houses thinking that oil or electric are their only heating choices.

This issue was up at the Utility and Review Board hearing into NSPI's demand-side management (DSM) plan, where some $200 million over four years is being raised on your power bill to retrofit homes and businesses, subsidize efficient appliances and lighting, and so on. Quite rightly, the usefulness of this has been questioned. (Why subsidize, if at least half of this stuff would be done anyway?)

How much greater effect would even part of that money have in supporting a solar program? At the very least making the public aware of solar's benefits (no retrofit without at least an expert recommendation on what solar can do), but best of all a complete solar energy program, including installation training for tradesmen, financing, etc., with the aim of putting panels on tens of thousands of homes and institutions. This is an argument for economic stimulus as well as for energy conservation.

At the URB hearings, alternate energy philosopher and entrepreneur (small hydro and wind) Neal Livingston was making this argument. He's been after government for years to take solar seriously. In his latest round, the only people in government he found who were really taken by his argument, he said, were in Economic Renewal, who saw the economic logic. Energy and Environment didn't seem to be interested at all. Note to government: Fix this.

Finally, the electricity plan does address the issue of interconnections with New Brunswick, with an eye to bringing hydro power from Quebec in future and eventually Newfoundland and Labrador. It points out that the power lines from Quebec have limited capacity and Moncton's growing consumption is taking more and more of it. Not this government's fault, but the failure of previous governments to pursue this has us now in a rush of problematic wind and biomass that could have been avoided.

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