Winters of our discontent

Energy security, a government responsibility in most developed countries, typically consists of policies intended to ensure that all sectors of a country's economy have access to reliable and uninterrupted supplies of energy at reasonable prices.

The loss or mismanagement of energy security can impact both the country and its government; consider President Carter imploring Americans to use less energy in the late 1970s; the Trudeau government's National Energy Program in the early 1980s; and Governor Davis' energy rationing policies during the California blackouts in 2000-01.

Canada's past profligate use of its abundant, cheap energy has made Canadians susceptible to at least one of the problems associated with energy security, notably increases in energy prices.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the dollar-plus per litre Canadians are currently paying for gasoline in most major centres. Motorists' negative reactions to these fuel prices should not be surprising in light of typical Canadian driving habits.

The complaints about rising gasoline prices will pale by comparison this winter when Canadians face the cost of fuel to heat their homes: discretionary trips in a vehicle can be postponed, whereas heating a home at 20-below-zero cannot be considered discretionary.

Space heating accounts for well over half the energy consumed in most Canadian homes. Although modern, better insulated houses have lower heating requirements than older ones, the trend towards building large houses, coupled with the increasing cost of energy, will result in higher annual fuel bills for the majority of Canadians.

This winter, Canadians on low- and fixed-incomes will be hardest hit as energy prices continue to rise. Fortunately, most provincial governments have fuel assistance programs which offer those in need a grant to cover part of their fuel costs. For example, during the 2004-05 winter heating season, the Nova Scotia government instituted "Keep the Heat", a fuel assistance program for individuals earning less than $13,400 and families with incomes less than $22,000. In addition to a $200 cheque to help cover the cost of home heating, a voucher to pay for a furnace tune-up was also included. Curiously, despite its name, the Keep the Heat program failed to include a component that would actually enable people to reduce the heat loss from their homes. Fuel assistance programs like these are short-term solutions that may appear politically generous but do little to address the longer term issue of energy security.

As rising energy prices erode disposable incomes, the number of Canadians requiring winter heating assistance can be expected to increase. In Nova Scotia, the number of individual and family fuel assistance claims rose from 17,000 in 2004 to about 25,000 in 2005. More Nova Scotians will require assistance this winter, in part, because of Nova Scotia Power Inc.'s proposed 14.7 per cent electricity rate increase, to be effective Jan. 1, 2006.

While few can dispute the need for government fuel assistance, these programs will become untenable if energy prices continue to rise as they have over the past few years. There is a clear need for governments to implement policies to address the issue of long-term residential energy security.

The most basic of any residential energy security policy should attempt to reduce energy consumption by ensuring that all existing housing stock meets minimum insulation and air exchange standards. Although NRCan's Energuide for Houses Retrofit Incentive Program is intended to do just this, the $150 evaluation fee is a barrier to those people who may benefit the most; as a result, many Canadians will continue to pay too much for their space heating requirements.

As well as improving a house's energy efficiency, it is necessary to consider the sources of fuel used for space heating. Fuel substitution programs (encouraging fuel substitution from a high to a lower cost fuel source) are often, at best, short-term solutions, especially in times when all energy prices are rising.

An alternative is to use the "waste" heat from thermal power stations located in or near cities and towns for space heating in houses and other buildings. When a fuel, such as coal, oil, natural gas or biomass is burned in a thermal power station, most of the energy released in the burning process heats water in boilers. The water turns to steam and turns turbines to generate electricity. Not all the energy in the steam can be transferred to the turbines; the remaining energy is treated as "waste".

The heat is piped as hot water around the community in insulated pipes. Instead of having furnaces in homes or other buildings, a heat exchanger removes some of the heat from the circulating water and supplies it to the building. By utilizing a single fuel source (for both electricity and heat) rather than two (one for electricity and the other for heating), the overall energy efficiency of the community can be doubled.

District heating, piping heat from a central power station to houses in the surrounding community, is widely used in northern European countries such as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, but has made few inroads in Canada (two of the better known examples are Charlottetown and Ouje-Bougoumou in Quebec).

In Nova Scotia, for example, a district heating system could be implemented in peninsular Halifax or downtown Dartmouth using the waste heat from the Tufts Cove power plant in Dartmouth.

The most recent federal budget has extended Class 43.1 to include "High-efficiency cogeneration systems" (with a 50 percent Capital Cost Allowance (CCA) rate) and district heating piping and pumps (with a 30 per cent CCA rate). To be economically viable, district heating systems require a minimum thermal density (that is, the total heating demand of all buildings in a given area must exceed a minimum threshold). This means houses in suburban neighbourhoods that suffer from sprawl may not be able to benefit from district heating.

Ensuring the residential energy security of future generations of Canadians will require policies specifying that new houses meet standards that minimize their energy requirements. In addition to improving the building envelope, all new infrastructure should be built to maximize solar gain (i.e., the energy obtained from the sun), either through passive or active solar systems.

As many Nova Scotians are no doubt aware, home heating fuel is approaching 90 cents per litre; by comparison, during last year's heating season, fuel averaged 77 cents per litre. A recent study by the author has shown that even with tax reductions and government rebates (as suggested by some provincial political parties), many Nova Scotians will be unable to afford to keep their homes warm this winter.

Despite the benefits of the suggestions proposed in this article, they require provincial energy security strategies that will take years to implement. As a result, those people who are unable to heat their homes this winter may be forced to into such actions as sharing accommodations with their neighbours. If the situation becomes more desperate, governments may have to open community centres as emergency heating shelters.

When energy was cheap and seemingly plentiful, most governments paid little attention to the issue of energy security. With rapidly rising energy costs due to growing demand, energy security must become a priority for all levels of government. Whether time will allow us to achieve energy security in these changing times is another matter.

Published - Sunday Chronicle-Herald - 11 September 2005.