A New Energy Deal

This post is a piece Brendan Haley and I have been working on for some time:

A New Energy Deal

This month, as settlement payments for the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill reach $1 billion, part of the financial aftermath of the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, a ship powers ahead through the black sheen, on its way from northern Colombia to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The ship is laden with coal from the infamous Carrejon mine, which destroyed a traditional farming community to get to the cleaner burning coal.

It’s another day in the carbon economy.

As successive state, provincial and federal governments trumpet their latest sustainable prosperity plans, overall Canadian progress on renewable energy is slow to stagnant. Renewables require a massive transition of infrastructure, and that’s too expensive for a power-hungry continent. Politicians foolish enough to talk of initiatives that could result in energy-price increases (paging Stéphane Dion) risk their careers and their parties’ aspirations for political power.

That’s a shame, because moving quickly to 100% renewables is not only achievable, it’s a natural policy fit for centre-left political parties.

Or, it would be, if they paid attention to the legitimate concerns voters have about energy costs. While many environmentalists write off these concerns as irrational and shortsighted, the thousands forced to choose heat over healthy food each winter would disagree. As Yvonne Carvery, a senior with a disability, said in her 2007 testimony to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, “I live very economically and often do without luxuries like fresh fruit and vegetables…in order to make sure that my electricity bill is paid on time.”

It’s not only low-income Canadians who are concerned that renewables will make their energy needs inaccessible. It was the middle class who, worried that his complex carbon-pricing scheme would hit their pocket books hard, cost Stéphane Dion his Prime Ministerial aspirations.

So how can renewable energy policies possibly fit into any political party’s election-speak? Centre-left politicians – and the bureaucrats who work for them – have to appeal to our bleeding liberal hearts, the way Roosevelt once did with his New Deal.

A viable New Energy Deal would include three key components:

1)      Energy conservation options that everyone, from all income brackets, would access.

2)      It would democratize energy production opportunities, so that many more individuals and communities could be energy producers and benefit from higher energy prices.

3)      And an effective New Energy Deal would have to include an energy safety net for those in need.

Fragments of such a plan exist in relatively progressive jurisdictions. There are examples throughout North America that show it is possible to get beyond the energy price vs. environment dichotomy. The trick is scaling those local examples into a national program.

1) Universal Energy Conservation

Regardless of the technology, we need to curb our energy demand to avoid catastrophic climate change. Mass energy efficiency entails a new infrastructure for households and businesses, including energy audits, information and financing options, and available skilled labour.

The late Blair Hamilton, one of North America’s leading experts and speakers on energy efficiency, used to implore his audiences, “Imagine if improving your energy efficiency was as easy as filling up your car or turning up the heat.” He wasn’t just being rhetorical. Hamilton used to run the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, one of the leading efficiency programs in North America, and one of the most accessible for all income levels.

Here in Nova Scotia, we now see Efficiency Nova Scotia doing as well as Vermont in involving low-income households in their programming – but because of the corporation’s good will, not because of any targets or laws.

When Hamilton asked his audience to imagine such a world, he was saying that we’ll know the change in energy cost politics has come when citizens demand these energy efficiency services rather than price reductions. Only a few cutting-edge energy agencies and utilities have tapped into the growing demand for efficiency, mostly in the United States. Nova Scotia has just set down this path with the establishment of Efficiency Nova Scotia.

No province in Canada should be without a one-stop-shop efficiency agency where people can get individualized information on how to save money by conserving energy. The most stable energy efficiency programs, such as those run by Efficiency Vermont and the Oregon Energy Trust, have been funded via a surcharge on energy bills. Dedicated revenue from energy surcharges are used to build an efficiency infrastructure. These agencies have created equity targets to ensure that all sectors benefit from efficiency savings - everyone from low-income households to small businesses to large industrial consumers. These targets ensure that a minimum percentage of their energy savings happen in low-income households.

Canadians living in energy poverty, who have an unmanageable combination of low incomes and high-energy costs, are frequently left out. These households are most in need of energy efficiency improvements, but they can’t afford any of the upfront costs required. To achieve energy savings in these households, upgrades must be provided at no cost. The energy efficiency programs run by provinces or utilities for low-income households tend to offer shallow measures, easy and inexpensive improvements that have correspondingly small impacts, like replacing light bulbs. Efficiency NS, however, is now doing free, deep retrofits.

Nationwide, we need deeper measures, full retrofits including full insulation and efficient lighting, appliance and heating systems, to bring low-income households out of energy poverty. Meg Power, President of Economic Opportunity Studies in Washington DC, simulated that a 40% efficiency improvement amongst low-income households in the US could bring half the people living in energy poverty out of it.  

2) Democratizing Energy Production

Compared to carbon-based and nuclear energy, renewable projects tend to be smaller in scale, and are more workable when delivered by smaller organizations directly serving communities they know well. As a result, the increased per unit energy costs associated with renewables can actually benefit those communities. “In Ontario,” explains Kristopher Stevens, director of the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association, “with the opportunities provided by the Green Energy Act, everybody is becoming a conserver, a generator, and an entrepreneur.”

In Nova Scotia we have the Community Feed-in Tariff Program, which according to the NS Department of Energy, “is designed for locally-based renewable electricity projects. To be eligible, the projects must be community-owned and connected at the distribution level (i.e., typically under 6 MW).”

Germany and Denmark have become renewable leaders using “feed-in tariffs,” guaranteed prices that guarantee cost recovery and realization of a reasonable profit for renewable energy producers. Their citizens pay far a premium for renewable energy, yet they do not suffer the energy poverty many Canadians and Americans know. This lack of energy poverty is partially the result of mass ownership. About half the population of Denmark has an ownership share in a renewable energy project, meaning they benefit from high-energy prices.

As a result of feed-in tariffs in Ontario, Stevens expects “a mixture of individuals producing their own renewable energy at home, energy co-ops run by farmers and First Nations Band Councils, and local communities producing their own energy supported by private investors.”  

As more citizens establish interest in being energy generators, and not just consumers, voters will no longer demand rock bottom energy prices. However, not everyone will be a power producer. Therefore, universal energy conservation and support for those facing unreasonable energy costs remain crucial components of an effective New Energy Deal.

3) Energy Safety Net

An energy safety net is essential for those living in energy poverty. The Low Income Energy Network, an Ontario-based NGO dedicated to universal access to adequate affordable energy, assesses the extent of energy poverty by an individual’s “energy burden,” which is measured by the percentage of household income paid for power. Households have an unsustainable energy burden if they pay more than 6% of income for the energy they need.

According to Green Communities Canada, in 2003 the average household spent 4% of pre-tax income on fuel and electricity, while those in the lowest income quintile spent 13% of their income.   

Energy poverty advocates in Ontario, Nova Scotia and many states have proposed Universal Service Programs before their utility boards. The fundamental component of all these proposals is a credit on monthly energy bills to bring low-income households back under an energy burden threshold. Households spending 12% of annual income on energy would receive a credit to reduce energy costs to 6% of income.

Utilities that have implemented energy cost assistance programs have saved money because there is less need to track down customers who default on their bill payments. But a Canada-wide energy safety net has never made any federal party’s election platform. Politicians and utility boards still focus on energy price, not energy security.

Even Ontario’s Green Energy Act, arguably the nation’s most progressive piece of energy legislation, went no further than introducing emergency energy funds for people with crippling back-payments due to the local utility. When renewables inevitably increase energy prices in Ontario the poor will be left behind with no safety net. Fear will abound and renewable energy will be blamed.

A New Energy Deal

The current energy paradigm tries to give energy security by protecting passive consumers from monopolistic energy utilities. In this system, the lowest energy price is the law. Enter the hippies and social entrepreneurs with their schemes to jack up energy costs with new-fangled green technologies, and you have instant conflict.

A New Energy Deal that focuses on renewable energy security, with a plan for universal energy conservation, access to renewable production opportunities for communities and entrepreneurs, and an energy safety net for the poor, would make energy cost politics work for the environment and citizens.

Charming the Tin Ear

With the termination of my long-running Sustainable City column at The Coast, I thought I'd create a new blog on environmental issues - a new, closer-to-the-ground soapbox to share short, but hopefully worth-your-time observations. I'd say it's because I'm passionate about the environment, but the truth is I'm scared and it's an obsession. I have kids now and I'm scared for them. As humanity tames the beast it becomes a more hostile, dangerous and unhappy world. I'm doing my best to build their health and strength. Changing the world is much more daunting, but there's nothing we've done that can't be fixed, yet. A sustainable humanity is achievable if we can get the bosses and bigmen out of the way. But this is merely a space to consider and discuss.

So, where to begin? Well the most exciting thing I've seen 'out there' lately is Idle No More, which was sparked by Bill C-45, the latest assault on the earth and our future by Canada's neo-con majority government (which has minimal support). I'm inspired by the response from Mi'kmaw communities and leaders. A busload of folks are headed from Fredericton to Ottawa to support Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence during her hunger strike, which she'll continue until Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with her. As Harsha Walia observes, Spence has joined a long line of heroes in "an act of ultimate self-sacrifice, famed hunger-strikers such as Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, Bobby Sands, Khader Adnan, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, and Irom Chanu Sharmila persisted in their demand for the most basic of elements: land, life, abundance, freedom and dignity."

Unfortunately, three weeks in and PM Harper seems content to let her starve rather than spare a few moments of his precious time. Unless you believe the trolls commenting on online news stories, saying that because she's taking fish broth and liquids she's in no danger. But the reality is, restricted to liquids her health will suffer and she could die within weeks or months - her body's reaction is impossible to predict. But already her visitors have described her loss of strength and apparently she is sleeping more.

So how is this an environmental issue? Spence's hunger strike is part of the Idle No More movement demanding that the Government of Canada live up to its treaty obligations and consult with First Nations on natural resources issues. Bill C-45 gutted the Navigable Waters Protection Act of 1882, removing important protections (extensive consultation processes required for construction) from 99 percent of Canadian waterways, including those on First Nations' land. In Nova Scotia, only three waterways remain protected.

Those pesky rules about consultation are in the government's way. Rather than protect the water, they'd prefer to let industry build oil pipelines through it, something most First Nations oppose. Easy solution: remove the rules about consultation. 

For the Prime Minister, meeting Spence would mean listening to a voice of reason. And reason has a tendency to get in oil's way. But at the same time, people don't like watching a brave woman starve to death. For Harper, that's an ugly thing to be psychologically associated with, come election time. Perhaps for that reason he'll meet with Spence. I hope she knows how to charm the tin ear of a man who runs on oil and gas.