What lights up Occupy Ottawa? It could and should be clean energy, but it’s not

This is the first of a three-article series. The other articles are “Occupy Ottawa update: why they’re using gasoline” and “Occupy Ottawa update II: it’s still possible to run on grid power.”

I wonder when Bob Dylan’s classic “The Times They Are a-Changin’” will become the anthem for the Occupy protests that have swept across North America. It’s so pertinent to today, and it seems to so perfectly capture the spirit that galvanized the protests. And especially the first verse, which could have been written about climate change. Have a listen:

And speaking of protests and climate change…

My friend Darcy Whyte was walking through Ottawa’s Confederation Park, which is the site of our city’s version of the Occupy phenomenon. He was amused to see a sign saying “Protect the Environment” only a few meters away from a running gasoline-powered electricity generator. (See his photos here. The one in question is near the bottom.)

Confederation Park is right downtown but can be pretty dark at night, so I know it’s necessary to have good light. But is it necessary to light the place using a gasoline-powered generator? The grid is available in Confederation Park; I know because I asked a person who works for Ottawa JazzFest, which is in the same venue. She told me the festival uses mostly grid power (with diesels trucked in for really big acts like the great Wynton Marsalis.)

Ottawa is in Ontario and like almost all Ontario communities is electrified by the Ontario grid. By far the biggest source of electricity in this province is nuclear energy; right now (three p.m. on Wednesday) it is providing half our electricity. See the system operator’s website.

The next biggest source right now is hydro; it’s providing almost a quarter of our power.

That means nearly three quarters of Ontario’s electricity is coming from non-emitting sources. Of course our grid is also being fed with coal- and gas-generated power; both emit significant amounts of pollution.

All told, Ontario electricity right now comes with 129 grams of pollution for every kilowatt-hour of electricity generated. That metric, grams of pollution per kWh, is called the Emission Intensity of Electricity.

If you think 129 grams per kWh is a lot, consider the emission intensity of the electricity that Occupy Ottawa is using.

From Darcy’s photo, you can see that it’s a pretty small generator, similar to this 1500-watt Champion model sold by Canadian Tire.

The Features tab on the Canadian Tire page says that the Champion 1500-W machine will generate 6 kilowatt-hours per 5.5-litre tank of gasoline.

Burn a liter of gasoline, and you dump the equivalent of 2.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.

That means a smallish gasoline generator will dump over 10 kilos of CO2 into the air for every tank of fuel it burns.

Do the arithmetic, and you see that the emission intensity of electricity from that size generator is around 2,100 grams of pollution per kilowatt-hour. i.e., gasoline-fired power at the Occupy Ottawa site is more than SIXTEEN TIMES as polluting as electricity from the Ontario grid.

Now, I know the protesters aren’t swimming in money. As Darcy says, gasoline is cheap and convenient. So I’m not criticizing them for using it—they need electricity like everyone else does.

But there is an alternative, which is cheaper and far cleaner. As Dylan says, the waters have grown. Let’s keep them from growing more.

2 comments for “What lights up Occupy Ottawa? It could and should be clean energy, but it’s not

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *