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Broad energy vision would engage us all

British Columbia's Energy Minister Blair Lekstrom lays out the stimulus part of a vision for a clean energy future but the other shoe has yet to drop. Energy buffs want to know if the upcoming Clean Energy Act will embody a broad energy vision for B.C. or simply support renewable energy developers.

A broad vision could set us on course for profound changes in the way we use energy, positioning us for a future dominated by higher energy prices, greater restrictions on fossil fuel use and urgent action to minimize the CO2 emissions that drive climate change.

This vision will not initially be comfortable. We have grown accustomed to abundant, cheap energy at the flick of a switch, while ignoring the real costs and side-effects of its production. But the broad vision will ultimately be more satisfying because it will engage us all in the choices that face us, rather than insulating us and disengaging us as passive consumers.

The narrow vision would continue to benefit private power developers, at the ratepayers' expense, without providing societal benefits. It would leave us complaining about rate hikes and seeing only the down-side of developments in our back yards.

In the past eight years, government has worked hard to grow B.C.'s renewable energy industry. Fossil fuel alternatives are virtually banned or seriously curtailed: coal-fired power has a daunting carbon-capture requirement, and gas-fired power has a stiff requirement to offset CO2 emissions. BC Hydro is obliged to go to independent power producers (IPP) for any new generation, and must by law acquire an average of 4,400 GWh a year of power in excess of B.C.'s domestic needs, rising to 7,400 GWh/y in 2026 (known as "self-sufficiency plus insurance").

This creates a large market for IPP power and a surplus for export. Also, IPPs have been given open access to the grid to pursue exports independently. Are these policies part of the broad vision, or the narrow one? These are the key issues for the broad vision:

First and foremost, renewable energy development must be reliably and transparently linked to an equivalent reduction in fossil fuel use. Domestically, the extra power BC Hydro acquires should go to reducing gas and oil for home heating and hot water, and to switching our vehicle fleet to electricity. We should ensure that power exports reduce greenhouse gas emissions outside B.C. by contracting only with jurisdictions that have strong energy conservation and renewable energy programs.

Likewise, the Site C dam and the northern extensions of the electricity grid that are meant to support industrial development should not proceed unless they can be shown to contribute to real reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions.

Next, renewable energy development must not compete with energy conservation and efficiency. BC Hydro has launched an ambitious new Power Smart program to capture all cost-effective conservation. Such opportunities are plentiful, but it will take concerted efforts by Hydro and government to change British Columbians from their energy-wasteful habits to a conservation mode. BC Hydro submits its energy plans to the Utilities Commission for approval. Higher conservation targets in the plan will mean lower amounts of supply-side energy to be acquired, and the different intervening groups will compete to assert the merits of their preferred energy type. Government must continue to assert the current policy of prioritizing conservation.

Third, government must expand its highly successful LiveSmart program to ensure that low-income people can access efficiency retrofits that protect them from price increases. As BC Hydro continues to refurbish its existing equipment and acquire new power resources (expensive whether privately or publicly developed), utility bills will inevitably rise.

A key requirement for social acceptability is that rising rates should not unduly harm the disadvantaged members of society. We can look to the U.K. to see how energy poverty is being addressed through efficiency upgrades targeting low-income homes.

Finally, the planning and development of the energy vision should belong to all BC, not just the government. The conclusions of the Green Energy Advisory Task Force have not been made public, and the scope and contents of the upcoming Clean Energy Act have not been disclosed. For an energy plan to gain public acceptance, especially if it aspires to make significant changes, there must be public engagement. It may be too late for meaningful input into legislation that is probably almost complete, but government should make a concerted effort to engage the public once the Clean Energy Act is tabled in the legislature.

Thomas Hackney is vice-president for policy at the BC Sustainable Energy Association.

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