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August 18, 2003

Power generation

It is mid-way through Monday morning and Toronto's power-supply appears to be holding the line. The subway is supposed to be working though the provincial and federal governments are telling non-essential workers to stay home and the opening of the Canadian National Exhibition has been delayed another day. Flea Towers is doing its bit by asking local law-enforcement to keep use of the Flea Signal to a minimum.

I have been impressed with Premier Ernie Eves' performance during the crisis. His public statements have been calm and resolute in contrast with the non-response of the federal government or Ontario's opposition parties which have offered plenty of spleen but no credible solutions. The opposition hopes to capitalize on the black-out but I believe Eves' public presence offered guidance and reassurance when it was most needed and that this can only improve the election prospects of the provincial conservatives.

The crisis points certainly to a choice we need to make about our use of power. I believe we have three alternatives in the long-run.

The first is to reduce power-consumption on a permanent basis. This is the sort of solution advanced by those idiotarian "environmentalist" philosophies which are indistinguishable from fascism. These display all the romantic appeal and economic sense of noted worker's paradises like Khmer Rouge Cambodia or Stalinist Albania. At a minimum, you could say good-bye to your DVD player, personal computer and, most likely, your job. It is one thing to fantasize about a simpler, more rustic life. It is another to find yourself forced into "Eden" at gunpoint. People who think nothing of arson and bombings in the name of animal rights take delight in the draconian measures which would be necessary but thankfully most people will realize "conservation" is no long-term solution. Our use of gadgets is related directly to our new forms of employment and increased quality of life and our thinking about energy sources needs to advance beyond the vacuum-tube era in which the power-grid was built.

Which brings us to option number two: higher energy prices. Our current power system delivers energy to North American consumers at low cost (this applies to oil and gas as much as electricity) relative to the high-price regime I was used to in the UK. My house in Manchester was a drafty Victorian in a part of England noted for its cold, damp weather. The central heating was effective but expensive enough that despite my consulting salary I would turn radiators on and off as I scurried from room to room. The prices I paid meant I used water and power sparingly. There is a virtue to this way of organizing things as it meant I was rewarded economically for my frugal use of energy instead of subsidizing the neighbours who chose to leave their lights on. I was looking longingly at an real estate advertisement for a London warehouse conversion and wondered aloud how anyone could afford to heat the place. "It's �600,000," my friend observed. "If you can afford to buy the flat then you can afford to heat it. That's how it works." This equation combines with the fifty per cent of UK housing built before the War to produce a public living in chilly conditions. It also means everybody pays more for the goods and services produced by companies who must pass on high energy prices for their businesses to be viable. This may... may mean an environmenal benefit is incurred but only at the cost of economic growth and quality of life.

This leaves option number three: build more power plants. Ontario provincial opposition leader Dalton McGuinty was challenged on his promise to shut down Ontario's coal-fired power plants by 2007. His response did not tell me how lost generating capacity would be replaced by further nuclear development (nuclear provides half of Ontario's energy) or if there are some spare waterfalls we could use for more hydroelectric power. Ontario Power Generation claims it is exploring "green power" in the form of wind, solar and biomass sources but it is difficult to see how these can replace conventional power generation in the medium-term. The provincial government should be building more power-plants. It is nice to be nice. It is nicer to have working refrigerators and street-lighting at night. We have discovered it takes a few days to get nuclear power plants back on-line after a shut-down while it is only our coal-fired generating capacity preventing more of the rolling black-outs Ontario faces this week. To shut down those plants without ensuring equally reliable energy production is in place would be madness.

I am optimistic about our long-term prospects for more environmentally friendly energy because of a proven record of human inventiveness when faced with any problem. My optimism is predicated, however, in economies which grow ever larger and use ever more energy as our way of life changes and improves with yet to be invented technologies. The blogospheres of the future require more power. Foraging-scale societies may be more appealing than a power-plant in the back yard but nomadism is notable for a marked lack of libraries, dentistry or toilet paper. More power, please.

And then... I forgot to mention something. Now it turns out the difficulty orginated in Ohio I expect New York's mayor will offer an apology for blaming Canada. Sadly, I also expect more of the self-satisfied, ignorant finger-pointing at the United States which is typical of some Canadians.

And then... Raging Kraut offers us two choices: low prices or reliability.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at August 18, 2003 11:19 AM


I realize this is slightly off-topic, but enquiring minds want to know... did you hand-craft that new banner (with the Flea Signal) yourself? It looks terrific! Great work, whoever did it.

I fully agree with your comments vis a vis electricity pricing. The incentive to conserve is far greater when there's a significant cost involved. This is blatantly obvious to anyone who lives in a house and has friends who live in an apartment, or vice versa.

In a house you foot the utilities bills yourself, whereas in an apartment your electricity bill is effectively flat-rate and folded into the rent. Since I live in a house I take some care to conserve energy, turning off lights when I leave the room, not leaving several TVs on in various rooms, generally shutting things down when I'm not in the vicinity. My friends that live in apartments, by contrast, leave several lights on all day and night, and are not at all concerned if 2 TVs are blaring away in different rooms of the apartment while they're out on the balcony or on the computer. There's no cost to them for doing this, so there's no incentive not to.

Ontario has had an artificially depressed electricity market for too long. I know it's not fashionable or pleasant to pay high utility prices, but wouldn't we rather that the cost of electricity reflect the actual costs of operating the business? Ontarians, we need to ask ourselves when, precisely, did living in economic denial become a reasonable life strategy?

Posted by: Chris Taylor at August 18, 2003 09:57 PM

I too am liking the look of the new "Super-Flea."

Thanks for the link and I agree with your comments on Ernie Eves.

There are many who won't come out of this looking half as good...Mayor Bloomberg has proven he's no Rudy Guiliani and Mel Lastman has proven, well, that HE IS Mel Lastman.

I think many have resorted to finding blame rather than finding causes.

Posted by: Ray at August 19, 2003 12:14 AM

Moving from PEI to Ontario this spring, I am amazed how silly cheap eletricity is. I am in an apartment and do pay separate electricity but would easily pay 50% more and not miss it. My last bill for 33 days was twenty nine bucks. If it was forty nine I would have not even thought of it. While I have a genetic disposition against Tories, Eves has looked better in this moment than at any other time. But we like leaders when we need to and want to be led. I wish he had an electricity plan. I work a bit with electric utilties and am not convinced that wind and solar are not here now. This is a last 20% (say) role. We do need more dams but not coal. Ontario should go in with Newfoundland to mainline the second Churchill direct. Pay the piper his tune, too, to make one Atlantic province happy with the old jingle in the pocket.

Posted by: Alan at August 19, 2003 09:17 AM

Thanks for the kind words about the new Flea-banner. Yep, I shopped it myself.

Posted by: Nicholas Packwood at August 19, 2003 10:50 AM

The work I did for the UK Department of the Environment was energy-related (construction and civil engineering process stuff) but only tangentially connected to policy around energy generation. I got to see a simulation of a breech in the core of a nuclear reactor-which-shall-remain-nameless. Suffice to say it involved a giant concrete catcher's mit and left me once again in awe at British engineering. The job meant I spent time thinking about "life-cycle" energy costs rather than energy from the perspective of electricity producers or consumers. I think some of the experience remains applicable to the current dilemma.

The work left me with a sense of the complexity of factors which go into making any policy decision and the necessity of making choicees which in most situations mean gaining something at the expense of something else. I would be delighted to learn wind and solar could get us the extra generating capacity I believe we need or, as the McGuinty plan claims, we could get more capacity from the current installation at Niagara. I want to add something to my thoughts on conservation. I am all in favour of more efficient use of energy in construction and manufacturing processes. This is not only good for the environment but good business sense. Savings in energy use mean savings in production expense and consequently savings for consumers and the economy as a whole. I want to distinguish efficiency from the romantic calls for "conservation" which look to me to be calls for us to live in grass huts and sing along with some guy on acoustic guitar.

Posted by: Nicholas Packwood at August 19, 2003 11:07 AM

Well put.

Posted by: Alan at August 19, 2003 11:09 AM

I wrote a comment here but it has turned into another post on power generation.

Posted by: Nicholas Packwood at August 19, 2003 11:47 AM

My wife used to work for Bloomberg (and will soon again).

If you're Mike Bloomberg, you never have to say your sorry...

Posted by: Fred Kiesche at August 19, 2003 09:27 PM

You might want to look at
on the attempted privatization of power in Ontario.

It also has a neat chart of natural gas prices that seems to be updated monthly.

Posted by: Privatization of Ontario Hydro at February 3, 2004 03:10 PM