Energy Alternatives Getting Insufficient Government Support

CANADIANS ARE now committed to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, even though Ottawa may not have a well-developed plan. But Dean Scammell does, and he's a good six years ahead of the government. In 1999, Scammell started building his 2,400-sq.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 28, 2005

Energy Alternatives Getting Insufficient Government Support

CANADIANS ARE now committed to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, even though Ottawa may not have a well-developed plan. But Dean Scammell does, and he's a good six years ahead of the government. In 1999, Scammell started building his 2,400-sq.-foot home near Stonewall, Man., about 30 km north of Winnipeg. First, the firefighter and father of four built his two-storey dwelling to the federal government's R-2000 standard, so his place is airtight and about 30 per cent more energy-efficient than a conventional home. Then, for about $3,800 more than the cost of ordinary electrical heating and central air conditioning, Scammell, 43, put in a GEOTHERMAL pump to draw energy from the ground. Living in a part of the country where the temperature can often nosedive below -30º C, Scammell says he pays an average of $50 a month for heating. "It's just like Rick Mercer says - take the one-tonne challenge," he jokes, referring to the popular comedian's ad campaign to encourage Canadians to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. "Well, I'm sure we'd pass."

Many others wouldn't. But collectively, our best bet in meeting our Kyoto obligations seems to depend on the willingness of individuals, government and industry to conserve more - and go whole hog on clean and renewable energy. The trouble is, government has to get behind a technology or initiative with real money or tough regulations. That hasn't happened to any great extent. Now, Canadians face the challenge of finding the right mix of energy alternatives, from wind to geothermal to solar. And in one province, the situation is coming to a head particularly fast. With plans to close its five coal-fired power plants by 2007, Ontario will lose up to one-quarter of the power it now generates, leaving residents facing a tough question: where does nuclear energy fit in?

On the geothermal front, Manitoba has been aggressive, with 650 new heat pumps installed last year, up from 512 in 2003 and 190 in 2000. In Scammell's case, a pump draws water from deep in the Earth, extracts its energy through a heat-transfer system, and pumps the cooler water down a second well. Manitoba's success stems in part from the province's willingness to offer incentive loans of up to $15,000 under a program that, according to Manitoba Hydro, has led to over 1,230 tonnes in emissions savings a year. In Alberta, land of the oil sands and much fear and loathing of Kyoto, the province now requires that 90 per cent of the power for government buildings comes from renewable and alternative energy sources: wind power from Pincher Creek, and BIOMASS ENERGY - from burning bark, sawdust and pulp waste - from Grande Prairie. Governments at all levels, says John Bennett, a senior policy adviser with the Sierra Club of Canada, have to make a conscious effort to back renewables. "That's exactly how all the energy systems we ever got were developed," says Bennett. "There's no system that didn't depend on subsidies to spread."

Although some people consider windmills eyesores, WIND is the fastest growing source of electricity in the world. But Canada lags far behind, with only 444 megawatts of capacity, or less than one per cent of the country's total electricity output. In 2004, Canada installed windmills to the tune of 122 MW, a personal best. But it still pales in comparison to Europe, says Robert Hornung, president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association. "Spain," Hornung points out, "installed an average of 35 MW a week last year." Germany already has 16,500 MW of wind capacity, representing six per cent of its electricity production. That, says Hornung, is largely because Germany initially guarantees producers an attractive price, while ensuring access to the power grid.

Where to get new energy is a hot-button topic in Ontario. In an interview, Energy Minister Dwight Duncan repeated his government's intention to phase out coal, despite some very public musings by Jan Carr, head of the Ontario Power Authority, that the province might be able to continue burning coal with new technology. (The U.S., uninterested in Kyoto, has plans to build 24 coal-fired power plants by 2008.) A 1,200-MW installation just west of Toronto is the first plant scheduled to close. That will take place in April; the others will be gone by 2007, Duncan promises, although exact shutdown dates haven't been set.

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. figures Ontario's 7,500-MW shortfall from the closings is the perfect opportunity to promote its Candu reactors. "There just aren't any other options for large-scale production of electricity - or replacement of existing, polluting electricity - other than nuclear power," says David Torgerson, chief technology officer at AECL. "It's the only technology that can meet demand for electricity and still reduce greenhouse gas emissions." But Duncan isn't ready to commit to new nuclear plants just yet, although Ontario already gets more than 40 per cent of its electricity from fission. "We haven't taken a decision. Our focus is on closing the coal-fired plants." So it's an open question? "It's an open question at this point," says Duncan, before he checks himself. "Well, let me be careful. We haven't taken a position is what I want to say."

Morag Carter, director of the climate change program at the David Suzuki Foundation, cringes at talk of splitting atoms. Nuclear energy, for starters, is expensive, she says, not to mention the problem of radioactive waste; there are other ways to turn down the planetary heat. "We can cope with the closure of the coal-fired generating stations, and we can do it potentially without natural gas and nukes," says Carter. "But that means we have to adopt an aggressive conservation strategy, and couple that with an aggressive renewables-development strategy as well."

Everyone can chip in, by conserving more - and by getting inventive. We've had success with hybrid cars. Ottawa's well-regarded EnerGuide program includes subsidized home inspections, and offers grants for energy-saving upgrades. Fuel cells hold great promise, even though they've been largely stranded on the sidelines. Calgary has shown that it's possible to power a light-rail transit system by wind. Twelve turbines, located in southern Alberta, supply the juice for more than 100 trains, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 26,000 tonnes each year - the rough equivalent of 7.5 million fewer car trips annually. And then there's directly tapping into the Earth for power, as Scammell did. "If you're environmentally conscientious," he says, "this is the perfect system." There are many Kyoto-friendly options to choose from. We just need to get behind them.

Maclean's February 28, 2005