More missed opportunities

In 2007, the provincial government enacted the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act (EGSPA) which committed Nova Scotia to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Last Friday, Nova Scotia’s new energy strategy, Toward a Greener Future, was released with the objective of meeting EGSPA’s goals through measures targeting energy efficiency, natural gas, and electricity.

The strategy intends to “increase energy efficiency in the province by 20 percent” (over 2008 levels) by 2020, through a number of actions including the creation of an “electricity conservation and efficiency agency” (which, inexplicably, will compete with Conserve Nova Scotia), improving building standards (already delayed because of objections from various home builders), and obtaining “transportation efficiencies.” Much of the energy efficiency measures’ success hinges on the demand side management program (and its associated tax), which, according to one of the strategy’s graphs, will result in no growth in residential and commercial electricity consumption between now and 2020.

The strategy also includes conservation as part of the energy efficiency program. Since conservation implies doing without, the option is downplayed. For example, when transportation efficiencies are discussed, rather than recommending measures intended to encourage conservation, such as carbon taxes on transportation fuels or lower highway speeds, the strategy focuses on better fuel economy, changing modes (walking, public transportation, and bicycling), and changing community design. How the designs of existing, transit-unfriendly, low-density communities can be expected to change over the next decade is not made clear.

Although increasing energy efficiency is a laudable goal, the authors of the strategy appear to be unaware that it does not necessarily translate into an equivalent reduction in energy consumption. In fact, over the next decade, employment problems and plant closures caused by the economic downturn will probably have a greater impact on Nova Scotia’s greenhouse gas emissions than will the proposed energy efficiency program.

Natural gas is intended to play a significant role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the residential sector (mistakenly listed in the strategy as a means of increasing energy efficiency) and in the generation of electricity. With output from the Sable Offshore Energy Project in decline, Deep Panuke’s limited reserves, and offshore activity practically non-existent, the strategy is pinning its hopes on “offshore renewal” (including the George‘s Bank moratorium being lifted) and small onshore activities. The province‘s 2001 energy strategy was also based on overly optimistic beliefs about natural gas; however, with the world economic downturn, there is little to suggest that the significant levels of exploration activity needed to meet the province’s natural gas targets will occur. This has other ramifications, most notably the decline in offshore royalties that will hamper the province’s spending plans—which may explain why the strategy downplays the state of the offshore.

Since Nova Scotia Power produces about half of the province’s greenhouse gas emissions, the principal target of the strategy is electrical generation. The strategy lists solutions such as a trifling increase in net metering capacity from 11 MW to 20 MW (intended to show that the government and NSP care about small-scale generators), more use of natural gas for generation (again, no mention of the source of the natural gas), and a “smart meter” pilot study (as its reluctance to accept smart metering is well known, this appears to be an attempt to silence NSP’s critics).

Buried deep inside the strategy is a reference to the Lower Churchill hydroelectric power project and NSP’s plans to connect with it by subsea cable from Newfoundland. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the entire strategy depends upon this electricity, as these imports are what will allow NSP to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets; however, there is no guarantee that the Lower Churchill will be built by 2015 or whether the electricity will flow directly to Nova Scotia.

The strategy also calls for the development of a “Green Grid” as a means of allowing more grid access for independent power producers (IPPs). However, there is more to the proposed grid than simply emissions reduction—if connected to New Brunswick, it will allow NSP and Nova Scotia’s IPPs to sell electricity to New England. Although electricity exports may benefit some Nova Scotians, there is a danger that once connected to New England, electricity produced in Nova Scotia will leave the province in much the same way as crude oil, natural gas, and wood pellets have done in the past and continue to do now.

For as important an issue as climate change is, it is only one of the two major energy issues facing Nova Scotians—the other is energy security. It may come as a surprise to many readers that the new energy strategy does not address the serious energy security issues facing the province. To be fair, energy security is mentioned in a few places (usually in reference to the province’s reliance on imported coal for electrical generation) and solutions are suggested, such as “diversifying” energy supplies (net metering, natural gas, and the Lower Churchill) and developing carbon capture and storage technology.

By focusing only on greenhouse gas emissions, the provincial government has done a grave disservice to Nova Scotians. The two principal energy services (that is, end-use energy demand) in the province are transportation and heating (space and water) in the residential and commercial sectors. Both of these services rely overwhelmingly on sources of energy that are subject to volatile price fluctuations, come from regions of political instability, and in some cases, are in decline.

With about 80 percent of Nova Scotian households relying on potentially insecure sources of energy for space heating (65 percent fuel oil and 15 percent electricity), any disruption in supply or rapid increases in price could result in the province experiencing a heating emergency—similar to what is occurring in parts of Europe now with the Russia-Ukraine natural gas dispute.

In a heating emergency, Nova Scotians would undoubtedly turn to electricity for space heating, meaning that NSP would be forced to shelve its emissions reduction plans in order to meet the additional demand by burning more coal or other, more expensive fossil fuels. This demand would push NSP’s generating capacity to its limits, possibly resulting in widespread blackouts.

As with the province’s 2001 energy strategy, the “new” energy strategy is a litany of missed opportunities—a truly visionary energy strategy would have put the interests of Nova Scotians first by addressing both Nova Scotia’s energy security needs and climate change obligations.

Proverbs said it best, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Larry Hughes 21 January 2009