Doing energy policy right in Nova Scotia

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We should ban these outside energy experts. Every time one shows up at a Utility and Review Board hearing to remind us how muddled our energy practices are, it makes us look bad. This time it's about the planned $200-million-plus wood-burning power plant at Port Hawkesbury.

As if it wasn't enough that the project will devastate the forest even more than it already is, that burning wood is apparently as bad as burning coal and won't reduce greenhouse gas, and that a similar plant in New England was apparently built for half the projected cost, along comes U.S. renewable energy consultant Barry Sheingold to tell us that Nova Scotia Power Inc. hasn't done its homework on the project.

That is, it didn't call for competitive bids from other renewable energy sectors to see if it could do better in meeting its renewable energy goals in other ways for less money -- solar, more wind, conservation, geothermal, whatever -- as they apparently do where they do it right.

Let's review where we're at, then. Start with the misconceived coal policy of the early 1980s that has left us as one of the world's most polluting jurisdictions per capita. We should have been looking for alternatives from the beginning -- notably a connection with Quebec's hydroelectricity, like the northern U.S. states. But the jolt only came in 2007 with the MacDonald government's Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act, with its hard caps on greenhouse gas emissions. Problem was, the government had no idea how to reduce emissions. It simply chucked the whole thing over to NSPI, which was totally unprepared (its president had pooh-poohed climate change only a year or two before) and could only scramble for whatever was on the shelf -- big wind and biomass seemed obvious because it fit into their existing way of doing things.

Moreover, another warp in our energy history was to privatize the energy utility some 15 years ago. NSPI serves two masters -- public policy and private profit. The two don't necessarily mesh, especially so since NSPI has a monopoly, and it has a bias in favour of using renewables to feed big central grids instead of towards conservation and decentralizing technologies like solar energy which shifts power to the consumer.

Stuck in the middle is the NDP government. It has a new Electricity Act being prepared for the fall with a more comprehensive energy policy, including transportation, due next winter, plus a conservation strategy coming with its new agency, Efficiency Nova Scotia. The question arises as to where the government is in all this -- and where the policy drift is going. To some in the renewable energy field, the NDP has caved in to NSPI's domination while others are tentatively hopeful that the present process is in fact working, albeit slowly.

At issue mainly are the "feed-in" laws for renewable electricity contained in the new Act. These are guaranteed 10-year rates for energy producers, and are used in what are considered the world's most advanced renewable energy jurisdictions. The problem is that what's proposed is very restricted -- applying to still undefined "communities" (municipalities, co-ops, native bands, etc.) but not to individuals or small businesses. They also don't include solar energy.

On that point the government took its advice from the Wheeler task force last fall, which in turn took some bad advice on solar that simply reflected a common backward prejudice -- that solar is an "emerging" technology that's "not here yet." In fact, it's all over the rooftops of Berlin and Tokyo and wherever and growing like topsy worldwide, not to mention being manufactured in Dartmouth for this same world market. Whether for domestic hot water or heating, or for electricity, it's a decentralizing and conserving technology that's easy to retrofit on existing buildings, but not easy to fit into a big-utility mentality. The unasked question remains: what would just a chunk of those hundreds of millions intended for biomass, wind and whatever do if applied to solar?

Meanwhile the government is freaked by the political reaction to rising power rates, which has led it to put off mercury emission targets, probably a precursor to putting off greenhouse gas targets, too. But rising prices are probably the only incentive that will truly force us to make the switch to sustainability. Meanwhile, according to the latest reports, the Earth continues to heat up at an alarming rate.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County.

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