March 7, 2009
Ontario’s Green Energy Act should more accurately be called Ontario’s Gangreen Act.
No piece of legislation in memory will do more to simultaneously undermine Ontario’s economy and environment. This one act rolls back decades of environmental gains in the energy sphere and opens the door to a future of environmental outrages.
All forms of energy supply have environmental drawbacks, including the much touted renewables; hydro dams can damage river ecosystems, solar arrays can consume large amounts of land, wind farms kill birds and bats. The environmental drawbacks are then compounded by the need to deliver the energy to market over great distances; underground pipeline construction for oil and gas does mostly temporary harm and transmission towers for electricity leave permanent blights. For such reasons, the traditional energy preference of environmentalists has been conservation, by far the most benign of all the energy alternatives.
Two other factors make conservation or energy efficiency, as conservation is also known, a hands-down winner: The untapped potential for savings remains phenomenally large and these savings can be had at low cost, if only governments allowed conservation technologies to compete on a level playing field against their energy supplying and energy consuming competitors. Because governments have steadily been removing subsidies as part of the economic liberalization that has gone on over the last few decades – tar sands plants, mega dams, nuclear plants and the automobile are among the many that saw their government favours erode – conservation has made steady gains.
The Green Act undermines the advance of conservation by making renewable energy, particularly wind power, the enemy of conservation.
Under Ontario’s Green Act, energy developers are entitled to build wind farms without need to consider whether a conservation technology alternative could do the job at less cost. The subsidy to wind development companies is so high, in fact, that Ontario consumers will be forced by law to pay these developers up to three times as much per kilowatt-hour as they do for other forms of energy. This direct state-sanctioned gouging of electricity consumers will then be augmented by the indirect gouging of consumers.
The Green Act allows wind developers to stake out the province, including remote parts of the province, and demand that the power from their wind turbines be transported to distant markets via massive transmission corridors all at public expense. In the past, environmentalists have rallied to stop uneconomic long-distance transmission corridors, aided by the many affected communities. These corridors slice through rich farm belts, pristine forests and wilderness areas, cottage country, rural communities and finally urban centres, creating grievances along their entire path.
In future, such opposition from affected communities will be knee-capped, partly because the Green Act denies communities their long-standing rights to public participation in projects that affect their local environments, partly because many environmentalists have switched sides in opposing transmission towers. To further worsen the odds that local communities now face, corporate lobbies in the renewable energy business, many of them multinationals, back both the environmentalists and the government, and fund both too.
The environmentalists are content with this bargain, unmoved by those whose properties will be expropriated. Or by those who live adjacent to the transmission corridor, whose quality of life will be devalued by their unsightly new neighbour. Or by those who work in the eco-tourism business or other industries that depend on unspoiled nature. They argue that these costs are necessary for the greater good. (The environmentalists may be less content in future – this precedent that they’ve created can just as easily be applied to squelch the public’s rights in opposing the siting of a nuclear or coal plant, or any other project that environmentalists might oppose.)
Environmentalists will argue that the Green Act is good for conservation, because of the acts provisions for home energy audits and utility conservation targets. In fact, the Green Act has put conservation in a box, capping its potential to the trickle that will come of a few high-profile sectors, for which government conservation programs can be devised. Meanwhile, the gushers of potential conservation in the greater economy – virtually every product and service involves the consumption of energy – are left to languish. The only way to encourage across the board energy conservation, and obtain the massive reductions in energy consumption that are economically justified, is to stop subsidizing energy in all its forms and force society to face the true cost of energy.
Even the energy savings from the government’s targeted conservation programs are likely to backfire and actually spur wasteful consumption – this is the sorry history of government-mandated conservation programs. And to complete the wrong-headedness of the Green Act, its chief objective, the replacement of fossil fuel use with renewables, will fail miserably. Because the wind doesnt always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, every kilowatt of wind capacity that is built in some remote part of the province will need to be backed up by almost as much fossil fuel power.