Tag Archives: green energy act

Review: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

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This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Naomi’s political lens is so focused that it’s blinding. This is less a book about climate change than it is about why climate change is now the perfect excuse to do everything she’s always wanted to do anyway (eg. scrap globalization, redistribute wealth), which is fine, but she ignores any contrary evidence. For example, she has a brief section on the brief flourishing and untimely death of Ontario’s green energy economy, which she blames 100% on the WTO’s decision on domestic content. The waffling and delays of government regulators on applications, the constant changes in direction, and the dead-set-contrarian politics of the mostly rural ridings where wind energy projects were to be sited were completely overlooked, but as anyone who actually went through the process can tell you, the domestic content reg change was the least of any developer’s worries, and came after years and years of frustrations brought about by the public sector.

She spends a great deal of time criticizing anyone else whose political perspectives change how they perceive climate science and solutions, but is much, much worse herself in this book. No information penetrates unless it conforms with her pre-existing beliefs. But the global carbon cycle is not sentient. It doesn’t care how carbon emissions are reduced; it doesn’t even care if they are reduced at all. It does not vote and has no political preferences. WE do; and so it’s up to us to make some decisions about if and how we’re going to turn things around. It should be a mark of deep shame to any thinking citizen in a democratic society that authoritarian China is pulling so far ahead in the transition to a renewable economy.

The flaws with This Changes Everything can be boiled down to two, major, fundamental issues:

1. She acts as if the private and public spheres were diametric and opposed, rather than almost entirely overlapping. A person who works all day in a corporation then goes home and becomes a voter and consumer. People move back and forth between the private and public sector in terms of employment all the time. We are not talking about two different species–the private, evil homo sapiens determined to ruin the earth at a profit and the loving, public homo sapiens trying desperately to save it. It’s all just people.

2. The public sphere is as complicit in this as the private sphere. The reason we do not have a healthy, thriving renewable energy sector in Ontario right now is because the people of Ontario didn’t want it. They had it, and then put the politicians of the province under so much pressure to gut it that eventually they did to save their mandate. The moratorium on offshore wind projects in Ontario is a perfect example: two (small) corporations were all set to do the assessment work necessary to figure out if their Lake Ontario projects would work or not, but the government made offshore projects in Ontario illegal because the voters in Scarborough demanded it.

This is a terrible book on climate change. You’d be better off reading almost anything else on the subject.

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Thanksgiving

This has been a good couple of weeks to be a leftie, eh?

Occupy Wall Street just keeps growing–and I wish them much luck and the donation of several outdoor heaters, because I’m sure it’s getting cold in NYC at night. Watching the march and the protests online Wednesday evening (you really don’t need cable for anything important) was amazing.

I tried to explain to Frances what was going on, and why they were angry, and how it all happened (“Well, see, some people at the banks did some really bad things and it got the whole economy in trouble–the “economy” is all of the things that people buy and sell put together–so the banks were fine but regular people lost their homes and jobs and a lot of them in America don’t have the money for food and medicine any more. So they are all getting together so they can talk to the government about changing it, because they are very angry and very scared”). She stared at them for a while, and asked, “Why are they all yelling? It’s making a lot of noise,” and then sat down with her stuffed brown squirrel toy and tried to explain to him why some squirrels hate black squirrels, and why they shouldn’t.

“Squirrel racism,” I said. “Yes,” she replied.

“Did they talk to the government yet?” she asked me later. “Did they win?”

“Umm, not quite yet. They’ve been out there for a few weeks already and will probably be out there for a while longer.”

The green movements have signed on, the labour unions are joining in–this is good stuff. Rumours are going around that the White House may actually not allow the Keystone pipeline after all–this after Transcanada has already started mowing up endangered habitats in preparation, for which they are being sued.

You can just picture me madly waving my little green flag over in the corner, cheering.

Meanwhile, in Canada–the Tories aren’t getting the Ontario majority they’d banked on just six months ago. I’m writing this on Thursday, before any of the results are in, so I’m being cocky but:

Ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I’ve wanted to do work that would make the world a better place. Now, when I was five, I wanted to follow in the family tradition and be a missionary–this does not work as well when you’ve left the Church.

I went to University for Environment and Resource studies, never really expecting it to lead to a job that earned more than $20k/year (remember this was 1994), but I didn’t care. I was prepared to be broke pretty much forever if only I could make a difference on issues I cared about. That I graduated and found work that paid relatively well (not fabulous, but when your expectations are poverty-level it takes little to exceed them) surprised no one more than me–but the work itself was uninspiring. The whole system seemed set up to prevent the kind of meaningful changes we all knew needed to be made: environmental assessments focus on trivial projects over those with real impacts, so I spent my time writing screening reports for bridge repairs over drainage ditches or posting signs or building fences; government silos and committee culture mean it takes years to come to the slightest bit of agreement on anything, by which time there’s an election and a new government and you start over from scratch; too much consulting work is focused on how to mitigate a project rather than evaluate whether or not it should proceed. It’s disheartening.

A few years ago, I cracked into freelance journalism by writing articles about renewable energy–solar and wind. I dug deep into the academic literature, as I had access to academic libraries at the time; I interviewed the experts and activists on both sides; I read reports and checked their footnotes and references back through three or four levels to figure out exactly what was said by who when based on what evidence; and concluded that anti-renewable sentiment was based on a large steaming pile of crap. For the articles I wrote, I was paid the princely sum of $50. Freelance journalism does not pay well, at least not in Canada, not when you’re starting out–but it wasn’t about the money.

Then the Liberals passed the Green Energy Act, the FIT program started, and I saw a job posting for a management position working on renewable energy approvals–and I jumped at it, and here I am. Living in my lovely small town with my daughter who is as happy as I’ve ever seen her, doing work every day that makes the world better, cooler, safer for my daughter. I even get paid more than $20k/year to do it, though it was a pay cut from the government job. (Worth it, too.) Then the provincial Tories turned wind energy into a political football and we got kicked around for a year for votes, and wondered what would happen on October 7 if they cancelled the GEA and FIT program as promised with all those big leads they had in the polls….

But here we are. The program is safe, for now, and I get to keep working hard every day to make the world a meaningfully better place.

So thank you, Ontario. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I will be spending this Thanksgiving weekend feeling very grateful indeed–because what I have, right now, is all I ever really wanted.

Is it 2011 already?

Light in the distance

It is. If the calendar tells the truth, it is about 2.5% of the way through 2011, no less, and I’m just getting around to saying hello. (Hello, 2011!)

2010 was a great year for me and my family, and an interesting year for the environment in Ontario. My daughter and I moved to a lovely little town where I got a great job doing exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do, and if anyone ever tells you that your job is unrelated to your happiness and you can learn to be happy with any old job if you only have the right attitude, don’t believe them. Then, punch them in the nose. Yes, some people can, but some people can walk tightropes slung between hundred-story office towers, and we’re not all expected to follow in those footsteps, are we?

My daughter is going to a lovely school with a teacher she adores and has a bunch of wonderful friends who live on her street, which is pretty much seven-year-old nirvana. We have a two-minute walk to her school and I have a fifteen-minute walk to my office, and getting rid of the commute has made a huge difference, too. Plus, I walk to work through a park.

You’re jealous, and that’s ok. Did I mention the little grocery store that sells local, organic food, or the local, organic butcher, both a five-minute walk from my office? No? I’ll stop. 2010 was a really good year for us.

It was more of a mixed blessing for the environment in Ontario, at least from the perspective of this project manager in wind energy. Plus: We have a Green Energy Act and there are proposed wind projects all over the province! Minus: if Tim Hudak’s conservatives are elected this fall, they may stay “proposed” indefinitely if he fills a pre-election promise to can FIT and put a moratorium on wind.* Plus: The GEA’s regulations are getting better and the process is coming into focus. Minus: That didn’t happen until late fall 2010, which isn’t so great for planning field work and getting the process complete in time for the Commercial Operation Date deadlines. Plus: David Miller in Toronto put a $0.05 fee on plastic bags, which had a dramatic impact on their consumption. Minus: Rob Ford was elected, and he’s promising to scrap it. Plus: Ontario actually shut down four coal generators–the first jurisdiction in North America and one of the first in the world to be able to do so, partially as a result of new green energy construction.

Apparently Ontario’s coal shut-down is the largest climate-change mitigation project in North America. Eat your heart out, California.

More narrowly for wind energy, 2010 was a year of tremendous growth as the Ontario Power Authority approved 1530 contracts under the Feet-In Tariff program.** If they all go ahead, that would make 1530 MW of new wind generation, equivalent to >3 of Ontario’s coal generating stations. It thrills me to be involved in that.

More in line with the Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” is 2011’s election and its potential to change, upset, or derail all of those wind projects. Here’s hoping Hudak is just pandering for votes with a promise he has no intention of delivering on–I’m not sure how he could, anyway–or even better, that he loses. The end of the world, Dear Readers, is no time to be aiming for the Lowest Common Denominator and promising negligible tax breaks in exchange for a future of ecological and economic ruin.

Not that that’s ever stopped anyone before. See: Easter Island.

Working in the environmental field does not often give one grounds for cheery optimism. Most often, one is trying to squeeze lemonade from rotting limes: “Hey, so Copenhagen didn’t work out. We still have a few years left to mitigate climate change to the point where only millions people will die this century from climate change. We can do it!” This year–though we are still very much in rotting-limes-t0-lemonade territory–I felt optimistic about environmental progress and my role in it for the first time in many, many years. We are actually building enough renewable energy to shut down coal. It can be done. And I can help do it.

And so can you, by knowing enough not to be duped by cynical politicians who will tell you that it can’t.

~~~

*Note: Those bulldozed municipalities were, in the main, quite happy for the province to take over that decision-making function when they passed the GEA because the municipalities wanted to approve the wind farms but politically it was too difficult. They may be making a lot of noise now about how unfair it is, mostly to appease their constituents, but I’m not sure they actually want the authority back.

** 58 of which are for wind, and 10 of which I am managing under REA. Good god.

Six Months In to the Green Energy Act and Ontario Regulation 359/09

An excellent vantage point, but not much of a view.

The most exciting part of working under a new piece of legislation is that no one, and that includes the people who wrote it, knows what it means yet.

So far what it means is a whole lot more work under a process that was meant to streamline things–but never mind. The learning curve is so steep we’re using grappling hooks and pulleys to climb it.

Ontario, you may remember, had that horrendous summer blackout in 2003, along with most of the northeastern United States. That blackout resulted in part from decades of mismanagement of Ontario’s electricity system: no new construction to keep pace with the exponential growth in population or demand, or to replace aging and fragile generation or interconnection infrastructure. You know how your cell phone can burn out in about six months? And a toaster or a kettle will work for a couple of years, maybe a decade? Our electricity infrastructure also has a shelf life, and in order to keep the cost of Ontario’s electricity to consumers artificially low, for decades, successive governments did absolutely nothing about it.*

We import electricity from elsewhere, which would be fine if the transmission system were up to date and functioning well, but it isn’t. A lot of the electricity we import is coal-generation, and while Ontario has an abundance of hydro power thanks to our large rivers, it is tapped out. Moreover, old-style hydro generation has enormous environmental costs. If you’ve ever had any concerns about the impacts of wind turbines on birds, consider that fish cannot swim around water turbines.

Anyway. Basically, despite our huge hydro capacity, we depend on coal generation transmitted through an ageing and faltering system, leaving us vulnerable to blackouts and problems with supply and killing hundreds of Ontarians each year** from air pollution. Conservation is huge. It has by far the greatest potential contribution to our energy woes. We should absolutely conserve as much as we can, and due to our conservation efforts (plus the recession) Ontario’s electricity demand was the lowest in 2009 since 1997.

BUT.

But.

Conservation alone will not allow us to turn those coal plants off.

And we need to turn the coal plants off, because they’re killing people. Not to mention destroying the environment via global climate change.

In order to turn the coal plants off, we need new, non-polluting electricity generation. We need it NOW. Actually, we need it fifteen years ago. But it didn’t happen fifteen years ago, in part because a) renewable electricity doesn’t pay enough to make it worthwhile to build, and b) the Environmental Assessments required to get permission to build it took too long and were too expensive.*** The Green Energy Act attempted to fix the former by establishing Feed-In Tariffs, or fixed rates for electricity produced by various renewable means (for large-scale wind, the price is $0.135/kwh), over 20 year contracts. Ontario Regulation 359/09 attempted to fix the latter by creating the Renewable Energy Approval process, meant to streamline and simplify Environmental Assessments. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way, but that’s a post for another day.

If you read the newspapers, and in particular the National Post and Toronto Sun, which seem to make careers out of taking potshots at anything anybody else does without ever proposing solutions of their own, you’ll read–frequently, and perhaps daily–about how we can’t afford the FIT rates for electricity. In fact, we can’t afford not to. This is counter-intuitive, I know–why is $0.056/kwh for coal too expensive, and $0.135/kwh for wind dirt cheap?

Because coal doesn’t cost $0.056/kwh.

(And nuclear doesn’t cost $0.086/kwh–this one easily dismissed, since that lovely stranded debt charge that shows up every month on your hydro statement relates directly to the substantial cost over-runs of Ontario’s current nuclear fleet. In fact last year when the Ontario government tried to commission new private nuclear investment, they found that no company was willing to undertake it for close to what the government planned to pay.)

Because coal kills workers. Thousands of people die every year from mining, transporting, refining and burning coal at power plants–69 in 2007 in the United States alone. You don’t pay for that. Meanwhile China is bragging that “only” 2,631 people died in their coal mines in 2009. I could not uncover a global statistic, but you can believe the total number of people who die just from the coal mining–not including black lung disease, not including injuries, not including refining, processing, transporting and burning–is substantial. And, for you, the end consumer, free!

Because coal sickens and kills Ontarians. We pay billions of dollars every year in health care costs for people with asthma–doctor and hospital visits, prescription drugs, lost days at work and school. And hundreds of those people will die, many of them children. A 2004 study by Daniel Kammen & Sergio Pacca, published in the Annual Review of Environmental Resources, found that when deaths and illnesses were factored in to the price of coal-fired generation, the price per kilowatt hour was fifty cents. That is ten times what you pay. Again–forty-five cents worth per kilowatt hour of injury, illness, disease and mortality is, for you, the end consumer, free.**** (Or so you think.)

Air pollution doesn’t just trigger asthma, it causes asthma. A recent well-publicized study shows that decreased smoking in Canada over the past few decades has led to a decrease in asthma among Canada’s children. Smoking is not the only form of air pollution that causes asthma. Outdoor athletes are far more likely to suffer from asthma than indoor couch potatoes, contrary to what you might assume, because they are far more exposed to air pollution.

Coal mining, refining and burning destroys the environment. The tops of mountains are blasted off. Rivers are filled with toxic sludge. Entire forests disappear. You don’t pay for any of that on your hydro bill–but you should.

You do not pay for the carbon output of coal on your hydro bill. Your kids get to pay that one, in the form of a dangerous climate.

The price of coal-fired electricity on your hydro bill reflects only a tiny percentage of the actual cost. It is heavily, absurdly subsidized by all levels of government, in order to placate consumers. You pay for coal-fired electricity in your hydro bill, and also in your tax support to Health Canada, the Ministry of Health, Environment Canada, to the Ministry of Environment, to the Ministry of Natural Resources, to your local Public Health Unit, and on and on. You just don’t know how much.

At $0.0135/kwh for wind, you are paying for everything. That cost reflects the total, as it factors in the environmental assessment and any requried post-construction mitigation for impacts to wildlife. There is no mining, no processing, no transporting, and no burning.  No one dies in a Wind Mine accident. No explosions. No blasted mountaintops, no ruined rivers. No kids in the hospital with asthma. No deaths. No hospital visits. No smog advisories. No kids kept inside on beautiful sunny days because the air will hurt them. And no ruined climate jeapordizing the future of human civilization.

All of that is included in the 13.5c/kwh for wind projects in Ontario under the FIT program.

It’s a bargain.

~~~~~

*This is like keeping your housing costs down by refusing to fix the leaky roof; in the long term, you won’t just need to replace the roof, but the walls, the floors, and all your stuff, from water damage. The motivation is clear enough: Ontario and nearby provinces and states were manufacturing powerhouses; keeping electricity prices low was a way to compete for factories and jobs. This has backfired and needs to be addressed–not least because it didn’t work, and caused Ontario to lag behind jurisdictions with higher electricity prices in both standard of living and productivity.

**249 in Ontario in 2009, despite our coal electricity generation being at the lowest level since 1945

***Ask anyone in the business of renewable energy how they feel about needing to conduct expensive, multi-year environmental assessments to build solar- or wind-farms to SAVE the planet when private developers can slap up a subdivision or an office tower without so much as a by-your-leave, when office towers are the leading cause of human-related death for migratory birds and both represent colossal wastes of energy and resources.

**** Their study found that the total price of wind was less than ten cents/kwh with human health costs factored in.