Protecting Nova Scotians with the wind

Last week, when questioned about the Electricity Marketplace Governance Committee recommendations intended to allow large consumers (such as HRM) to purchase electricity directly from independent power producers, Energy Minister Bill Dooks was less than enthusiastic. First, the minister stated that he supported NSPI's monopoly on the distribution of electricity, since he had to protect Nova Scotians. Second, he said that, "If someone depends totally on wind energy, what happens if the wind stops blowing?"

Taken together, these two statements leave the reader with the impression that the minister wants to protect Nova Scotians from interruptible and potentially unreliable sources of energy. This is reassuring, as energy security should be the focus of any government. However, energy security is more than a discussion of the availability of a single energy source; it requires policies that address the usage and infrastructure associated with all energy supplies, coupled with a reduction in the reliance on imported energy.

In 2004, Nova Scotia's total energy demand was met from petroleum products (63 percent) and coal (28 percent); the remainder came from biomass (6 percent), with propane, natural gas, and hydroelectricity (about one percent each).

With the exception of a small amount of coal supplied by local producers, almost 90 percent of Nova Scotia's energy demand is met by suppliers from outside the province, many of whom are facing potential supply problems. For example, petroleum products come from the North Sea (declining production), Venezuela (declining production and political tensions), the Middle East (political tensions), the U.S. (declining production), and Hibernia (declining production), while coal is imported from Columbia (labour unrest), Venezuela (political tensions), and the U.S.

Clearly, the problems associated with limited supplies of wind-generated electricity are trivial when compared to the problems the province is about to face as world energy prices steadily increase. To paraphrase Mr. Dooks, "If Nova Scotia depends almost entirely on imported energy, what happens when prices increase or there are shortfalls in supply?"

With only a small fraction of the province's energy needs being met by indigenous sources, the answer to this question is quite simple: as prices increase or shortfalls occur, a growing number of Nova Scotians will be hard-pressed to find ways to heat, feed, light, and transport themselves. Natural gas will be of little benefit as the offshore has not lived up to expectations and there is limited infrastructure in place to take advantage of the small amount not exported to the United States. The lack of an energy corridor to provinces outside the Maritimes means it will not be possible to rely on Canadian energy supplies. Even the provincial government's tax-breaks on the cost of heating fuels will soon be offset by ever increasing energy price rises.

Achieving energy security is a long-term process, requiring targets for each sector or energy consuming activity of the provincial economy. The targets would have three components: first, to reduce the energy demand for each activity; second, to ensure that the energy requirements of new activities are met by indigenous sources; and third, to replace the energy requirements of existing activities with indigenous sources.

As an example, consider the impact of a fifteen year program targeting space heating and hot water heating in the residential and commercial sectors (presently, heating in these sectors is responsible for over one-third of the province's final energy demand, second only to transportation). If the program required all new buildings to use half the energy of existing buildings and one percent of all existing buildings to upgrade to meet this standard each year, by the year 2020, provincial heating demand in these sectors would decline by over a quarter.

But these buildings still need to be heated -- where can the heat come from?

In new construction and some existing buildings, proper orientation and construction would allow no-cost solar energy to meet most of the heating demand. For upgraded buildings with the wrong solar orientation, electricity could be stored as heat in electric thermal storage (ETS) units.

And where could the electricity come from? One possible indigenous source is wind -- the very source Mr. Dooks expressed concern about. The electricity produced from the wind would heat the ETS units, allowing homes to be heated whether or not the wind was blowing.

Rising energy costs and supply shortages means that Nova Scotia's reliance on imported energy is unsustainable. By identifying where and how energy is used in the province, it will be possible to develop targeted programs that reduce both energy consumption and reliance on energy imports. Nova Scotia needs a new energy strategy -- one that addresses the province's energy security needs and allows the minister of energy to actually protect Nova Scotians.

Submitted: Chronicle-Herald 18 October 2006