In the bleak midwinter — another reason for a new provincial energy strategy

Larry Hughes

Last Friday, the heating system in the apartment building where my wife and I live stopped working. Normally this would not be an issue; however, since it was one of the coldest days of the new year, the temperature in our apartment began to drop noticeably, making life increasingly uncomfortable. Fortunately, the building’s owners care about their tenants and called in the plumbers who battled the blizzard in order to fix the problem with the system. Within six or seven hours of the plumbers’ departure, the temperature in the apartment was back up to 20°C.

Sadly, during these bitterly cold days, not all Nova Scotians are as fortunate as we were. Those living in rental accommodation looked after by a landlord who is not as responsible as ours or living in an electrically-heated house without access to electricity on account of the grid failing can be forced to endure the cold for hours or even days. For other Nova Scotians, there may be a supply of energy but rising energy costs means that it is more difficult to pay for their heating—forcing some to choose between paying for fuel and putting food on the table.

The fact that some Nova Scotians are unable to stay warm, either because of the loss of energy to their home or the inability to pay for the energy they need to heat their home demonstrates that despite claims to the contrary by various politicians and pundits, Nova Scotia is not doing enough to improve its energy security.

For example, some claim that the UARB’s recent decision on the Maritime Link will improve Nova Scotia’s energy security since it should reduce the province’s greenhouse gas emissions from Nova Scotia Power’s coal-fired power stations. While improving the acceptability of an energy source is considered to be an indication of an improvement in energy security, most people will, however reluctantly, sacrifice the environment in order to stay warm.

An example of putting the price of energy before the environment has been recently demonstrated by Nova Scotia Power opting to generate electricity from lower-cost coal rather than natural gas. Although this should result in the price of electricity rising less quickly in the province, it will mean an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Some energy sources are more acceptable than others—for more than environmental reasons. Households desperate to stay warm often turn to energy sources that most people would consider unacceptable. Leaving electric-stove elements on or burning scraps of wood in an unsafe fireplace can—and often does—cause fires that result in death.

Peculiar as it may seem, others contend that Nova Scotia’s energy security will improve because independent power producers will be able to export renewable electricity produced in the province to New England where a premium is put on green sources of electricity. This may be good news for the producers; however, it will do little to improve Nova Scotia’s energy security.

The province has a history of exporting what little energy it has. Examples include natural gas (about 90% of which has been exported since the end of the 1990s, primarily to New England) and wood chips and pellets to utilities in Europe. Over the past decade, both of these energy sources could have helped improve the province’s energy security.

There is a great deal that needs to be done to improve energy security in the province. Amongst other things, more will need to be done to ensure that Nova Scotians are able to stay warm during the winter months. In addition to improving the housing stock, it will also mean keeping energy produced in the province (such as wood chips and pellets and electricity from the winds and tides) and making it available to Nova Scotians.

As more Nova Scotians are encouraged to use electricity rather than oil for heating, infrastructure changes will be required to upgrade and strengthen the provincial grid. In order to take advantage of the variability of the electricity produced from Nova Scotia’s renewable energy sources, it will be necessary to employ different types of energy storage for both heating and other uses and evolve the existing grid and metering technology to a smart-grid and smart-meters.

The new provincial government campaigned on changing both Nova Scotia Power and Efficiency Nova Scotia—the legislation introduced in the Legislature late last year reflects these campaign promises. However, given the importance of energy to Nova Scotia’s economic, social, and environmental well-being, the government needs to do more. It can begin by developing an entirely new energy vision and strategy for the province—one that puts the energy security needs of Nova Scotians first.

Published Chronicle Herald (11 Jan 14)