Climate Crisis Talk Turns to Energy Conservation

Monday, October 23, 2006

Written by Gonzalo Moreno

Last Thursday, journalist and author Paul McKay and Keith Stewart, Manager of the WWF Campaign on Climate Change, teamed up to deliver a talk to Guelph students about climate change, individual choice, and collective policymaking. While there was, in fact, a PowerPoint presentation involved (but, to Stewart’s dismay, no mini-elevator to prop him up à la Gore), and lots of scary pictures and figures, McKay and Stewart managed to pull their own punches, hitting close to home with their analysis of Ontario’s electricity market.

Stewart took charge of the science side of things. Citing some studies that are well over 100 years old, he said that we are “shredding the web of life” at an alarmingly increasing rate. This has consequences for habitats and non-human species. Stewart argued that protecting these species and habitats is imperative in its own right. However, if you are not convinced by this argument, he also cited a secret Pentagon study, unearthed by the British media, which rated climate change as a greater threat than terrorism. As Stewart quoted, this largely ignored scooped-up document concluded, in a scarily Hobbesian line, that “once again, warfare would define human life.” Stewart was not all doom and gloom, as he strongly advocated for “building irresistible public pressure” as a catalyser for change in our attitudes towards this climate crisis.

McKay then took the floor to illustrate this idea with his knowledge about Ontario’s electricity setup. He recalled his experience of the power situation in Ontario in the 80s, when he was a member of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group, and how all the predictions of power consumption that were made in that time were overstated by over 300%. As Ontario is poised to replace a great number of its current power sources, McKay and David Suzuki have co-written opinion pieces in the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail advocating for a new “laptop mentality” as opposed to the traditional, huge-power-plant “mainframe mentality.” This concept wants to reflect user empowerment, similarly to how PCs have displaced basement-sized computers in the last few decades.

McKay wants Ontario to “build hundreds of smart power plants” instead of the huge, inefficient ones that exist today (he gave a 33% efficiency figure for Ontario coal plants). Building new mammoth power plants would be “a huge fiscal bet”, and would create grid problems much greater problems if these plants came offline than hundreds of smaller power plants, which are not as likely to all fail at the same time. McKay encouraged “human ingenuity” to create new approaches to power generation and efficiency, including wind power and household regulators.

McKay fully shared Stewart’s view about public pressure. He said that Ontarians “clearly want” these new sources of energy, but the nuclear lobby, especially through its ubiquitous TV ad campaign, have made its job to tell people that “they can’t have it”. According to McKay, it all depends on “decid[ing] what we value most.”

The brief Q&A period that followed the talk turned to what our own UoG is doing about this. McKay and Stewart mentioned upcoming “standard offer contract” legislation that would pay individuals and institutions well above market price for the power that they may generate and not consume in these “laptop” operations, power that would obviously end up in the electrical grid for public consumption. According to representatives from Guelph Students for Environmental Change (GSEC), the University administration has been dragging its feet on some of these issues, as they have stated that they don’t believe energy prices will remain high enough to warrant some of the changes GSEC has brought to the table. If Standard Offer legislation were to come into effect, then the economic rationale that the university seeks would be satisfied.

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