Power utility deal is a light-bulb moment for Nova Scotia energy

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Have you ever been exasperated -- nay, infuriated -- by good news?

This unusual sensation hit me when I saw that story last week about Nova Scotia and New Brunswick power utilities intending to save up to $20 million a year by operating their two systems as one.

So easy -- apparently just a casual agreement, a technical shuffle, and voilà.

The infuriating part is that this bit of daylight illuminates the ruinous and sometimes outright imbecilic affair that has been our energy politics for the past 50 years, a swamp from which we have yet to emerge. Is this a sign of better things?

In other words, why couldn't this -- and other logical energy interconnections with New Brunswick -- have happened years ago?

The warp in our energy field is that energy projects have never been primarily for supplying energy, but for creating (or at least promising) jobs -- and to produce gushers of political puffery at election time. The Dexter government did it again with the Maritime Link to Newfoundland, selling it mainly as a job-creation project. Underlying this was the loopy notion that we, a near-island far away from the big markets, could find prosperity by exporting electricity to the world.

On top of that, once we were into the psychosis of electricity-rate politics, there was no getting out. The Gerald Regan and John Buchanan governments of the 1970s and '80s, trying to stamp out fires of their own lighting, repeatedly froze power rates, creating massive subsidy costs that are part of our debt and caused trauma when the freeze inevitably came off -- including, ultimately, the selling-off of the publicly owned Nova Scotia Power Corp. to the private sector for a song.

The power rate buzzer was still humming as of the last election. The Liberals more or less got elected on it. The Tories promised to induce another power-rate freeze, apparently ignorant of past disasters.

The president of NB Power, in announcing the arrangement and promising more to come, said the utilities had a long history of co-operation. The utilities yes, but not the governments -- where a politically juvenile rivalry existed due mostly to the grandiose energy pretensions of Regan and Buchanan.

The federal government and local voices had been pushing for years for a Maritime Energy Corporation, in which the three Maritime provinces would pool power, with Ottawa as the major backer -- a great chance to set things on an even keel.

A memorandum of agreement was signed in 1979. But ultimately, the argument that prevailed was that power from New Brunswick would diminish the rationale for Cape Breton coal (which was found too sulphurous to use after the coal-fired power plants were built, requiring imported coal) and Fundy tidal power on a massive scale with uncertainties at every level -- a project that would likely have joined a long list of other energy-related fiascos had it been tried.

The upshot is that we've spent most of two generations chasing the wrong thing. Apart from the benefits of offshore gas, our warped obsession with huge energy projects has not only cost a fortune (the heavy water plant, the Westray mine disaster, the entire coal policy, the energy subsidies to pulp mills), but taken attention and effort away from what we should have been focused on: manufacturing, value-added to our fishing, forestry, agriculture, services and tourism sectors, and indeed truly green energy and conservation -- in fact, everything we're desperately grappling with now.

The energy question could have been eased had we treated it as just that, and simply drawn larger amounts from New Brunswick, and ultimately Quebec. Now, of course, we're committed to the Maritime Link, which is likely the high-cost option, and to forest-destroying biomass projects on which the McNeil government would be wise to apply the brakes.

So this New Brunswick opening, although welcome and useful, comes maddeningly late.

Nevertheless, there is some other good news -- but like the New Brunswick connection, good news always seems to have to struggle against the grain to establish itself. The Halifax solar city project, in which payments for solar installations are financed through the city, is succeeding and looks as though it will be expanded. Prices for solar are dropping and it is becoming an energy of choice worldwide. The province should see to it that the Halifax program, or something like it, spreads through most of the province.

Then there's conservation, which, in fact, should be the top priority in energy use. Like other good ideas, Efficiency Nova Scotia has been kicked around but survives in another form, although there, too, the potential has barely been scratched.

And ultimately the New Brunswick connection is also about other things. Silly trade barriers down, regulations made to mesh -- it's almost too sensible, and, like most good ideas, there's probably no electoral mileage in it. Can it all be true?

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

Photo: Jason Michael/flickr

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