Columnists

Ralph Surette
It's time to talk about energy conservation in Nova Scotia

| November 19, 2012
Photo: Toby Barazzuol/Flickr

Rising power rates and the questionable Muskrat Falls deal for power from Labrador are getting all the media heat, but are not the main issues with regard to Nova Scotia's power problem.

The main issue we don't talk about. It is our failure to fully plug into the ways that would allow us to use less electricity, even to defer or cancel the need for projects like Muskrat Falls. It is here that the economic interests of the privatized Nova Scotia Power and its spinoff energy company Emera, not to mention the gas monopoly Heritage Gas, are a drag on moving forward.

Let me re-introduce you to Peter Allen, Dalhousie University energy expert, who has been making the case that we're missing the boat on natural gas, especially in the HRM domestic market, whereas everybody else in North America is forging ahead.

"The only reason that I can think of for the failure of Nova Scotia to achieve penetration of natural gas to at least 75 per cent of the province, after 13 years (since Sable gas came ashore), is fierce opposition behind the scenes from NSP/Emera," he says. Those 150,000 or more domestic hot water heaters, plus electric heat in half of Nova Scotia homes, and some other functions like cooking or even clothes drying, are NSP's bread and butter.

It's only logical NSP would do everything to protect its business. However, asks Allen, how long before the disconnect between burning natural gas at the Tufts Cove generator in Dartmouth (let alone coal elsewhere) at 25 to 35 per cent efficiency and 13 cents per kWh versus burning it directly in the home at 90 to 95 per cent efficiency and the equivalent of four cents per kWh becomes clear? Keep in mind, too, that natural gas replaces much more expensive and polluting oil for home heating. Allen's fellow energy professor, Michael Poulton, suspects that oil-distributing companies are also pressuring against natural gas, trying to protect their $300-million-a-year home heating business.

All this boosts my own long-standing suspicions, even before I had properly thought of natural gas. I was thinking of solar, another under-exploited resource.

We have programs, it's true, even good ones -- Efficiency Nova Scotia, the Solar City project in Halifax (600 panels for hot water heating), feed-in tariffs for community energy, grants and rebates. But these are virtually tokens in a system otherwise still geared to the big deal.

As an illustration of the economics involved, here's an illuminating tale from Australia, where I was in October. Rural and small-town Australians are turning to solar in droves -- faster than "urban greenies," as the papers put it -- as a means of lowering power rates. Consider the story of Patricia Day of Coodenup, a working-class town south of Perth, where one-third of the town has gone solar for both electricity and hot water.

Neither she nor her husband considered themselves environmentalists, but had installed solar panels to lower power bills which were "getting crazy," she told The Australian, the national newspaper. Their power bill had dropped from $280 to $180 a quarter since then, those savings making the payback on their panels easy to handle.

Indeed, so many people are reducing their electrical use that costs are going up even more for others, because fixed grid costs still have to be paid -- much like NSP's costs went up and it applied for a rate increase when the pulp mills closed. The high users were even pushing for a higher rate on the low users to even things out.

Conclusions:

Electricity use can be reduced dramatically. Like those Australians, sometime you can stop complaining about power bills and do something about them. It helps, though, if the powers-that-be are a help rather than a hindrance.

Reducing electrical use will not be painless, since in the first instance, it will raise rates until a reduced utility adjusts. My point is that we're going to face this anyway as rates continue to rise, so why not face it squarely now and get serious about conservation? If NSP, Heritage Gas and oil companies have to be faced down because their interests and the public interest clash, then government has its work cut out.

Meanwhile, here's a report from Maine some time back: "AUGUSTA -- Gov. Paul LePage says he will be meeting with natural gas companies over the next few months to see what the state can do to expand use of the fuel throughout Maine ... The governor said Maine is too dependent on oil for heating both homes and businesses. He said natural gas is plentiful and is an efficient alternative to oil." He mentioned the gas pipeline from Nova Scotia as a great asset.

It would be interesting to hear that here.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was first published in the Chronicle Herald.