Put our energy into conservation

Although the summer hasn’t been a burden on our air conditioning units, Ontario’s electrical supply has been front and center given the government’s decision to shelve plans for two new nuclear reactors.

That was certainly the right call, given the industry’s horrific record for cost overruns and poor performance. Originally looking to spend about $6 billion on two new reactors from Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL),the province saw that number quickly double, with estimates hitting $14 billion. Worst still, the figures are open-ended, prompting the McGuinty government to demand price guarantees that would place the financial risk on AECL, a federal Crown corporation.

Ontario is in no hurry to repeat the Darlington debacle. Completed in the early ‘90s, that facility east of Toronto cost $13.5 billion, far more than the $2.5 billion expected when construction began.

Already heavily dependent on its aging nuclear plants, the province will now have to give serious consideration to alternatives as we ramp up to another Blackout Challenge day next month.

The Aug. 14 date is significant, of course. Many of us will remember what we were on that day in 2003: sitting in the dark. That day saw North America’s largest power outage, eventually leaving 50 million people in eight U.S. states and Ontario without electricity.

The massive power outage served as an in-your-face reminder of just how dependent we are on the electrical grid.

The McGuinty government has not been effective to date in addressing consumer concerns, namely soaring rates and security of supply. Substantial efforts are needed on the conservation and alternative-supply fronts to tackle the long-term issues we face in maintaining a safe, abundant and – equally important – affordable electrical system in place for Ontarians.

The Ontario Energy Board (OEB) says rate increases would promote conservation, giving consumers an incentive to use power outside of peak demand periods – typically between 4 and 9 p.m., especially during the winter and summer months. This is giving rise to smart meters, with an eye toward charging us more for electricity based on the time of day.

Doing your laundry and cooking at, say, 2 a.m. would prevent you from paying more, as would avoiding heat in the dead of winter and air conditioning on the most stifling of summer days. Unfortunately, peak time is identified as that time when most of us need electricity: if the house is empty all day because we’re at work and school, there’s no usage going on. Ditto for the wee hours when most of us are asleep.

That said, there is every reason for us to conserve, and it can be done without completely revamping your schedule. Simple measures such as reducing the wattage of light bulbs, using timers, and turning off lights and equipment when they’re not in use can be beneficial. Ultimately, larger-scale conservation measures are in order: requiring more stringent codes for home building, demanding more from appliance manufacturers, and the like. Retrofitting projects, whereby utilities actually pay for users to replace energy-hogging appliances and to upgrade insulation in their homes, have proven more cost effective than building new capacity, the usual choice of expansion-minded utilities.

The goal of the Blackout Challenge is to see just how much a difference a concerted effort can have, if only for one day. The Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) will monitor the changes. Every small measure – not just that day, but every day – can help when taken cumulatively.

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