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Dependent on electricity — and addicted to what it provides

Constantly connected, plugged in and logged on, we’re at a loss when the power goes out – we simply don’t know what do with ourselves.

Luckily, those episodes are few and far between and are usually short-lived when they do happen, though it perhaps feels like an eternity as you sit around in the dark – literally and/or figuratively – waiting for the lights to come back on. Well, more to the point, for the TV, gaming system and streaming services to come back to life.

The electrical grid is much more reliable here than in much of the world, where service interruptions and even regular blackouts and brownouts are the norm. Still, there’s reason to be mindful of the potential for future disruptions if we get the kind of extreme weather predicted for the future.

The likes of high winds, tornadoes and freezing rain can all bring down power lines, cutting off power to a few homes in the case of a fallen tree to thousands should a major ice storm take out large swathes of the grid. We’ve got the upcoming 16th anniversary of the Aug. 14, 2003 blackout that turned out to be 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 very same one that’s been politicized by successive provincial governments, each looking to squander the legacy of Ontario Hydro.

The system has become more robust since the blackout, however. Likewise, attempts to bring more supply online and to boost conservation efforts have made it much less likely peak demand will take down the system. The recent spate of hot weather, for instance, has seen an increase in demand, but nothing like the peaks of 15 years ago.

Still, there’s no reason to be complacent, as that situation can change, particularly given Ontario’s reliance on nuclear power and the costs of maintaining the system.

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. We’ve taken conservation measures to heart, but prices continue to climb. Time-of-day pricing hasn’t had the impact proponents claimed, though it has hit us financially.

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.

Down the road, we’ll likely have to look at off-the-grid and neighbourhood micro-generators to help with costs and to improve reliability if severe weather, for instance, starts to place a bigger burden on the transmission system. There, too, conservation will be the key to making costs more manageable.

We should be mindful of our energy consumption, which is among the highest in the world. We’re also well advised to keep an eye on the alternatives. Ontarians, of course, are very much aware of what electricity costs us, at least as it applies to our wallets.

Somewhat ironically, green energy is often blamed for ever-rising hydro rates. Though increasingly problematic, the impact is overstated by opponents. Whatever method we opt for, prices will go up. As consumers of electricity, we’ve never paid the actual cost of bringing it to us, let alone all the things that come along with our dependence of energy, such as the environmental impacts.

As with so much of our infrastructure, we’re having to renew decades-old systems while building new ones to accommodate population growth.

Increasingly criticized for generous payouts open to abuse, the Ontario government’s Green Energy Act has the ability to put the province in a better position for the long-term changes coming to the electricity industry. Consumers would see virtually no relief from high electricity prices in the medium and long run if the province scrapped its alternative energy plans.

If we’re to move away from our dependence on conventional energy sources, however, we’re going to have to go down the road less travelled.

In the near term, conservation is the most important factor. It’s the cheapest form of “generating” new supplies of energy, if the most neglected.

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