Transforming public attitudes about energy costs

Hearings into power rate increases are on again, and the talkback lines crackle with the usual dismay. "When will it stop?" comes the plaintive cry.

"I can't afford to both heat and eat."

"Business will be crippled."

"Why can't the government do something?"

Some answers. First, it's not going to stop. Not until we're into another mode of energy and things stabilize.

And the government is, in fact, doing something: caving in to public and business pressure to keep rates from rising faster. But that just damages its policy of moving Nova Scotia to the world of energy efficiency and alternatives where we need to be.

According to the much-noted 2007 Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act, Nova Scotia is supposed to be a world leader in green energy by 2020. But the government buckled this summer by putting off mercury reduction standards (otherwise, the rate increase would be almost twice the 6.5 per cent residential increase being sought, and a third higher for industry), giving the signal that it's open to caving in on other goals as well in the future as soon as pressure is applied.

People and industries hurt when rates rise, and the government reacts by trying to keep them down. But rates must rise before we can be motivated to reach a stable plateau based on green energy and less wasteful use. How can this contradiction be resolved so we can move ahead?

The question is addressed in a useful report put out last week by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, authored by energy analyst Brendan Haley. Essentially, the question is: How can we shift from complaining about rising power rates to demanding and using the alternatives that will allow us to keep energy affordable even if rates do rise?

Energy prices are only one factor in the consumer's energy cost, Haley points out -- how much we use and how efficiently we use it being the others. Somehow we manage to ignore these last two.

Declaring that this question is one more of political culture than of energy and environment, the report calls for a "new social bargain" to bring about the transformation of public attitudes, the end result of which would be for government, citizens and industry to pull together to develop "new methods of ensuring energy affordability."

For this to work, a couple of things need to be done. In order to shift its attitude, the public must know that it is getting something in return for higher rates -- that is, access to alternatives and energy programs. For this to happen, the alternatives must be in place.

Efficiency Nova Scotia is being touted as ahead of its time in concept, but it's not yet up and running. Nor are the community Feed-In Tariffs (FITS) for alternate energy, and the other support elements that would make a difference.

The bargain would also need to deliver "social security with regard to energy costs" -- a guarantee that "higher rates will not result in energy poverty." The low-income population would be targeted specifically for efficiency and alternatives, since real hardship comes from higher rates for those who can't pay and since, politically, this is the sensitive point that drives governments to keep rates down counterproductively.

Haley recommends that 15 per cent of the Efficiency Nova Scotia budget go to low-income people under arrangements that would offer incentives for increasing efficiency.

The report, entitled Energy Cost Politics and the Environment in Nova Scotia, also points to business as a major source of potential savings in energy, but the change on mercury emissions has sent the wrong message.

Instead of an incentive to retool processes and products, "the same industries that lobbied for lower mercury are likely to fall back on repeating their requests in future."

As for how hard done by we really are, the report has a table -- Nova Scotia has the highest power rates in Canada except for P.E.I., but they're lower than in a selection of U.S. cities. And, in fact, we haven't even begun to conserve.

According to Nova Scotia Power, the average household power bill is around $245 every two months. Since my own is about $150 for two people, and I intend to drop it further, I suggest that room for conservation is huge. And public attitudes have only been scratched.

Blowing it out the window -- large utilities, Haley reminds us, were conceived to make us use more -- is still as much the popular notion as stuffing one's face with junk food.

Only rising prices -- which are inevitable anyway under all scenarios, the report points out -- will stop that.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.

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