Four questions and an election

Here are three questions you probably won’t hear during the current Nova Scotia election:

These are important questions that need to be answered for one simple reason: the world’s production of oil—Nova Scotia’s principal energy source—will plateau sometime in the next decade. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, the recent collapse in world oil prices has resulted in an absence of investment in oil exploration and new production facilities and is expected to cause price hikes and supply shortfalls as early as 2012.

Few jurisdictions will be immune from the volatility in the world’s oil markets. Nova Scotia can cushion the blow by developing policies using the four “R”s of energy security: review, reduce, replace, and restrict.

A review of Nova Scotia’s energy supply shows that oil—most of which comes from countries with supply problems—meets almost two-thirds of the province’s energy needs. Transportation (moving goods and people) and space and water heating (for the residential, commercial, and institutional sectors) are the two predominant uses of oil in Nova Scotia. A rise in world oil prices or a disruption to Nova Scotia’s oil supply would have serious implications for the social and economic wellbeing of the province.

Oil price rises and supply shortfalls will require Nova Scotians to reduce their consumption of oil. In the past, reductions have typically been temporary; for example, driving less and turning down the thermostat. However, the reductions needed now must be long-term and permanent: transportation alternatives, such as an integrated passenger bus and rail network throughout the province, new building construction standards that reduce the energy needed for space and water heating, and community development that lessens reliance on the automobile.

Secure energy sources that can replace oil need to be found to meet the demand of existing energy services, while new energy demand must be restricted to secure sources. A secure source of energy is one that is affordable, available over the long-term, and has the necessary infrastructure to make it accessible.

Nova Scotia’s offshore and onshore natural gas supply cannot be considered a secure source as Sable is nearing the end of its life, Deep Panuke will never reach the levels of production achieved by Sable, and there is no guarantee that Georges Bank has commercial quantities of natural gas. Moreover, the province’s limited natural gas infrastructure means few Nova Scotians will ever benefit from it directly.

Burning Nova Scotia’s biomass to generate electricity may be seen as a replacement for imported coal, thereby improving the province’s energy security; however, the process of converting biomass to electricity can be 40 percent less efficient than burning it for heat in a woodchip or pellet furnace.

Electricity from the wind can take advantage of Nova Scotia’s existing infrastructure—the electrical grid; however, its intermittency normally requires some form of backup generation (not necessarily from a secure source) and can lead to system instability. The problem of intermittency can be addressed by storing electricity from the wind either as thermal energy for heating or in batteries for transportation, allowing it to be used to replace insecure energy supplies such as fuel oil and gasoline.

Other Nova Scotia energy resources, using proper technology, can replace oil. For example, the province’s solar resource can meet the annual heating needs of low-rise buildings.

Access to affordable supplies of oil will become an increasing challenge over the next decade. Jurisdictions that recognize this and reduce their reliance on oil products, find replacements for oil, and restrict new demand to secure energy sources will offer their citizens a brighter future.

There is a fourth question that needs an answer in this election—which of Nova Scotia’s provincial political parties have the policies for a future with less oil?

Larry Hughes
Submitted to 26 May 2009