Reducing, Reusing and Recycling Debates over Green Energy
Keith Stewart, Manager, Climate Change.
This is not the first time that an Ontario Premier has found himself under fire over his plan for massive investments in renewable energy to end the province's reliance on coal.
One hundred years ago, it was Conservative Premier James Whitney in the hotseat over his plan to harness what a friendly editorial writer of the time described as “the pure white light generated by God’s greatest masterpiece, Niagara Falls.” Others, however, were less charitable and decried the dream of building the hydro-electric generating station at Niagara as an expensive folly that would bankrupt the province.
It did indeed prove to be a fabulously expensive enterprise. If no one now remembers how the controversy over it dominated Ontario politics for fifteen years, it is only because the end result was Ontario emerging as the economic engine of Canada, with Niagara Falls as its sparkplug. And today’s success breeds amnesia with respect to yesterday’s misgivings.
If there is a lesson in this worth remembering, it is that the investments being made today in modern forms of renewable energy can be for this century what the turbines at Niagara Falls were for the last: the foundation of our future prosperity and a source of pride.
Of course, investing in green energy is never about pure altruism. A hundred years ago, the province wanted to get off coal for energy security reasons rather than health or environmental ones. The catalyst was bitter strikes in the coal fields of Pennsylvania that had cut off coal supplies and threatened to doom Ontarians to freeze in the dark. The consequence was that Ontario was ahead of the game when the second industrial revolution arrived, powered first by electricity and then by the internal combustion engine.
In the 21st century, energy security is inextricably intertwined with securing a stable climate and healthy ecosystems. In a world threatened by dangerous levels of global warming, and what can be done with radioactive waste by individuals with malicious intent, there will be no security – of any kind – if we don’t find ways to meet our energy needs in a way that doesn’t lay waste to the planet.
This is where necessity once again opens the door to opportunity. The Americans are gearing up for massive investments in renewable energy. The European green energy revolution is already well underway. Someone is going to have to manufacture the products that both produce that energy and save it by improving the efficiency of our homes, vehicles and workplaces.
Fortunately, rebuilding our energy system along more sustainable lines offers plenty of opportunity. Alberta may have lost an early lead in wind energy, but there’s no reason they can’t mount a come-back and the province is uniquely well-situated to be a leader in advanced geothermal power. Nipping at Ontario’s heels are Quebec, Manitoba, British Columbia and Nova Scotia, all of whom are exploring how they can prepare their economies for the next century through green energy investments.
But we’re never going to get very far if we aren’t prepared to accept that the price of energy is going to go up, even if bills go down as we do a better job of conserving energy we don’t need, and doing more with less raw power when we do need it. Anyone who tells you that we can build new generating facilities – black or green – that can match the indirectly-subsidized power from decade-old plants nearing the end of their working lives is selling you a pipe dream. The only reason that we now think of Niagara Falls as a source of cheap power is because the cost of building it was repaid decades ago.
A century ago, the naysayers said we couldn't afford to build Niagara Falls. Yet I suspect that most of us are glad that our grandparents' generation chose to forge ahead with what remains an engineering marvel that dramatically improved our quality of life.
I also suspect that a century from now, if we get this right, our grandkids will be just as glad that we are building the wind, solar, geothermal, hydro and bio-energy projects that will power our future and their past.
Keith Stewart is the director of the climate change program at WWF-Canada, and co-author of Hydro: The Decline and Fall of Ontario’s Electric Empire.