Reviewing energy policy in Nova Scotia

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Oil prices have been stable for a while. When this happens, it always restores our illusion that things are under control. The upcoming world-scale meeting in Copenhagen in December, meant to replace the failed 1997 Kyoto Protocol against a backdrop of continuously rising pollution, finger-pointing among nations and polar ice melting beyond scientists' worst fears, may or may not shatter the fantasy.

Against this muddled backdrop, Nova Scotia's exercise in dealing with our small part of the big picture rolls on. You'll remember that Nova Scotia Power couldn't make the MacDonald government's target of five per cent renewable electricity by 2010, which it meant to do with wind power. The NDP government upped the target -- 25 per cent renewables by 2015 -- and named David Wheeler, dean of Dalhousie's management faculty, to consult and figure out how. He's expected to report by the end of the year, and the government will pick up from there.

I'm antsy about this. Although I expect the NDP to be more adept at energy policy than the Tories, I'm still not sure they really get it. Their first energy signal -- cutting the tax on electricity bills and hence encouraging power waste -- raises serious questions about whether they do or not.

At issue in the government's review is mainly wind and, especially, wood-fuelled electricity after the controversy last spring over a proposed big forest-fed plant at Port Hawkesbury. Both are problematic because they are meant to feed a central grid which is, here as elsewhere, insatiable.

Let me argue that the first test of an energy policy for the new age is not "alternative energy" at all -- but rather conservation first, then energy efficiency and decentralization of the power structure. Renewables should serve these ends rather than be an end in themselves that may, in fact, be mostly useless.

Wind power is especially troublesome in that regard. Even if NSP reaches 25 per cent renewables by 2015 based on wind, it will not have cut 25 per cent of greenhouse gases, which, after all, is the main goal. It may not have cut much greenhouse gas at all, in fact. This is because wind energy is variable, and a kilowatt of wind power is not worth a kilowatt of coal, water or nuclear. You still have to maintain your base power for when the wind doesn't blow -- in Nova Scotia, that means coal, unless we eventually get hydro from Newfoundland. How much it's worth is not clear because there are many variables. At one end of the spectrum, one German scientific group warned 10 years ago that it would take 24 times the installed wind capacity to replace one conventional power plant.

I've been getting stuff in that regard from a group called the Eco Awareness Society which is fighting a wind farm near Merigomish that they deem too close to houses, causing property values to drop and being an environmental nuisance. The interesting thing is they're an ecology group that started out believing in wind. They're not unlike many others, myself included, who have soured as wind becomes "big corporate wind" -- even to the point that NSP's parent, Emera, and others have been talking about windmills everywhere in the Maritimes to feed New England where it would pay more.

Wind, a huge resource, is indeed part of the solution -- potentially replacing grid power in various uses (as long as transmission distances are short) to communities, farms, institutions, industry and so on. As of now, however, it's beginning to look to me much like ethanol, a good idea in context, but which was cast as a replacement for oil, subsidized to the hilt, and has merely resulted in more useless environmental catastrophe.

Then there's big biomass: again, power being sent out into the ether to help NSP reach its quota. Biomass -- especially the burning of legitimate surplus wood to power industry and institutions on the local scale, thereby reducing their dependence on the grid -- is a good idea. Massive centralized plants premised on ravaging the forest are not. Surplus wood is best used as chips, pellets or just plain firewood to replace oil for home and institutional heating, the price of which will any time return to the stratosphere.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently projected global electricity consumption to rise by 77 per cent within 20 years. Deeming this impossible, the prestigious Foreign Policy magazine, in its current issue, after scanning all the ideas out there, concludes that there is no alternative to using less. Increased efficiencies, the magazine says, have already "reduced U.S. energy consumption from astronomical to merely high," but the surface is barely scratched. That's us too, here in Nova Scotia. Despite little advances, we're still blowing it out the window, often with the help of government subsidies. Addressing this should be the main focus of the energy review.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was reprinted with permission from The Chronicle Herald.

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