Hydro’s Yule Rules questioned

Lawrence Solomon
Globe and Mail
December 11, 1980

“Light up your home for only $1.05 of electricity,” advertises Noma, Canada’s leader in Christmas lighting.

The advice, printed above a lit-up house, boasts that Noma’s energy-efficient lamps allow you to light 100 bulbs for 15 days, 4 hours a day, around your windows, over your doors and through your bushes, for about the price of a couple of bus tickets.  What isn’t Noma telling us? Nothing. The ad is exemplary. Attractive, factual, informative, it allows consumers to make up their own minds about how much Christmas lighting they find desirable.  Noma’s Econoel campaign is its boldest since the OPEC oil crisis of 1973, when Christmas was made the culprit for many of our energy problems. Noma took a beating in its Christmas business then as righteous souls everywhere pointed to the extravagantly lit tree. Most of us have gotten over those days, and Christmas light sales are at an all-time high.

“You Don’t Have To Shout Merry Christmas,” says Ontario Hydro in its latest advertising campaign. This ad is less than exemplary. Seemingly a carryover from the past, it is designed to teach Canadians how to celebrate Christmas.

Hydro offers three rules in its code of behaviour for us during this holiday season. The third one tells us how to avoid fires; the first two tell us how to live.

The first rule says, “If you decorate your house with Christmas lights, keep it simple. Too much of a good thing is a waste of electricity.”

This rule is fine for everyone who likes a minimum of Christmas lighting. But Canadians are not a homogenous lot. We all have our peculiarities, and for many of us, those peculiarities are expressed in the many distinctive ways we decorate our Christmas display. We have also inherited the Christmas heritage of the many cultures that make up the Canadian mosaic. Some use more colours and lights than others, but we all benefit from the diversity that results.

Canadians are, after all, no more than the sum of our cultures, and the freedom to express our culture should be near sacred. Were there an electricity shortage an argument could be made for interfering with our lifestyles for the sake of survival. But our electricity surplus is huge – we have the ability to generate more than 40 per cent more electricity than we’ll need on the coldest day of the winter. Under this circumstance, as long as we’re willing to pay for our electricity, there can be no justification for trying to control the public’s taste in Christmas decorations.

The second rule says, “Turn your Christmas display on after 7 p.m., when the demand for electricity is lighter. And please remember to switch it off at bed time.”

It gets dark about 5 p.m. during the weeks before Christmas. For families with small children who go to bed at 7:30 or 8 p.m., this is no small sacrifice – most of the viewing opportunities are lost by the time Hydro gives the O.K. to flick on the switch.  I still remember my delight as a child with lit-up Santas and reindeer on my favourite route home for dinner. Yet what can the rationale be for depriving today’s crop of youngsters from similar pleasures, when by Hydro’s own reckoning Christmas lighting amounts to less than one-twentieth of 1 per cent of the electricity we consume?

The answer is more than misplaced do-gooding on Hydro’s part. This latest advertising campaign is really an extension of Hydro’s “Save It Till Seven” campaign, which, under the banner of energy conservation, also attempts to directly interfere with the way we live.  Putting the same turkey into the oven into 7 p.m. instead of at 4 p.m., of course, does not save any electricity at all – it merely shifts the time at which Hydro must provide the electricity from peak to off-peak hours.

And here’s the rub. Nuclear power plants, which Hydro prefers to build, cannot meet peak demands. Unlike hydro-electric power and coal, both of which are abundant and highly flexible, nuclear power plants must run flat out 24 hours a day to be economic. For humans to fit in with a nuclear power system, we must run flat out too.

Only we’re not busy enough at 3 a.m. and too busy at 6 p.m. for nuclear power’s liking.

The “Save It Till Seven” campaign attempts to use guilt to get us to change our ways. But Hydro feels we need a more direct incentive to behave better and Hydro will soon be providing it.

People who insist on eating dinner at dinnertime will find they have to pay more for the privilege – Hydro intends to charge more for electricity used around the supper hour to discourage its use. Hydro also hopes to change our working patterns by offering a bonus – in the form of reduced hydro rates – to employers who switch their production runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. shifts to, say, midnight to 8 a.m. shifts.

In doing so Hydro is not trying to be malicious – it is merely trying to make us conform to the nuclear power system it sincerely believes in. This kind of initiative may be acceptable in a country like Russia, where people have been scheduled to meet the needs of that country’s production equipment since 1917.

But in a country with a democratic tradition like Canada’s, this interference by a state-run monopoly is incompatible with the way social decisions should be made.

In the short term, the effect of Hydro’s policies may be limited to various aspects of our culture; in the longer term, if bodies like the American Civil Liberties Union are right, nuclear power could spell the end of democratic society.

Recognition of the danger to society that Hydro represents has been noted by the Ontario Energy Board. After an Energy Probe presentation earlier this year warning that Hydro’s advertising campaigns unnecessarily raised the cost of power and “represent an untoward interference in the democratic process by a Crown corporation,” the Ontario Energy Board ruled that Hydro should slash its advertising budget and advised the Ontario Government to set up a review process to weed out Hydro’s misleading advertising.

One fundamental question remains, however: what justifications can there ever be for public servants to use public funds to tell the people they presumably serve how to behave? Why shouldn’t we shout, “Merry Christmas!” if we choose to? In a choice between Hydro, a state-owned corporation, and Noma, a private corporation, I prefer to get my information about Christmas from Noma. In a choice between nuclear power and nuclear power plants and Christmas displays, I’ll take the Christmas displays.

Mr. Solomon is a writer with Energy Probe.

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