Public relations vs. public policy: how will renewables and conservation solve our power problems?

There is so much information and misinformation swirling through the public debate on Ontario electricity that a casual observer might get the impression that renewables and conservation will play a major role in the solution to our supply problem. They will, but not in the way many of their proponents think.

Let’s be clear up front. In terms of kilowatt-hours, renewables and conservation, combined, won’t close the looming gap between electricity supply and demand. They won’t even come close. Here’s why.

Renewables. In Could windmills replace Nanticoke? I pointed out that we’d need 7,700 giant-size windmills to generate as much power as the Nanticoke coal-fired station generated in 2003 (roughly 20 billion kilowatt-hours). Anyone who thinks it is remotely possible to build even a fraction of the required 7,700 turbines in this province is dreaming in colour. And if they also think the turbines’ owners would find enough buyers of intermittent power to cover the costs of building the turbines and connecting them to the grid… well, they should submit this fantasy to the Jungian society’s Dream-of-the-year contest.

Conservation. Conservation proponents point to Ontario’s high per capita electricity consumption relative to that of New York and California as proof that Ontarians are power hogs. This comparison is simply facile. New York and California don’t have major nickel processing, steelmaking, or pulp and paper manufacturing, all of which are extremely electricity intensive. Ontario does. Take major power consumers out of the mix, and Ontario’s per capita consumption is nearly identical to New York’s or California’s.

This means that for conservation to play a major role in closing the supply–demand gap in electricity, big power consumers like Inco, Dofasco, Falconbridge, and Stelco would have to curtail or cease operations. Those stuck in the electricity-is-bad mindset might encourage this. Thousands of Inco or Stelco employees would take a different view.

So what role will renewables and conservation play? Public relations. Windmills are visible evidence that somebody is going green. All you need is one or two to create a landmark. Same thing with conservation: install a few compact fluorescent lightbulbs in prominent places, and everybody will be able to tell—from the lousy quality light—that you’re saving electricity.

Carefully crafted public policy that supports the real solution to our power supply problem—nuclear and gasified coal—while paying the proper lip service to conservation and renewables could both solve the problem and manage public expectations. Good policy is good politics. In Conservatives go big on wind power, I suggest a way of combining the two.

But let’s just not fool ourselves into thinking we can nickel-and-dime our way to solving our power supply problems.

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