Home > News Room > TEA in the News > Nice try, Mr. Suzuki, but we're addicted to energy - Globe and Mail

Nice try, Mr. Suzuki, but we're addicted to energy - Globe and Mail

September 20 2003, updated March 23 2009
Eric Reguly
Globe and Mail

God bless David Suzuki. Canada's cuddliest environmental crusader, a man who has combined science and media savvy to achieve saintly status among greenies everywhere, is back with more instructions on how to fix the planet. The latest set is in a report called "Bright Future." How to avoid blackouts is the subject and you've got to give old fuzzy-face credit for impeccable timing. The tip list was published less than a month after Ontario and the nearby United States faded to black.

The good news is that a lot of things in the 40-page report make sense, even if some of them are unrealistic. The bad news, especially for Mr. Suzuki, is that the report will be duly ignored. Science and common sense rarely trigger environmental action among governments, corporations or consumers and "Bright Future" will keep the tradition of inaction alive. Might be time for Suzuki & Co. to invent a new attention-seeking strategy.

Let's start with the good bits in the Suzuki report. It wants to keep the lights on by addressing the demand side of the supply-demand equation. If demand for electricity falls, fewer generating stations will have to be built.

Less demand means lower electricity bills and fewer tax dollars directed to the care and feeding of electricity plants. The authors of the report say their recommendations could cut power demand by 20 per cent by 2010. If so, Ontario's smelly oil- and coal-fired plants could be sent to an early grave and their demise would have a pleasant byproduct in the form of cleaner air. And so on.

How to achieve these goals? It recommends looking to California for inspiration, which isn't a bad idea. In 2001, when rising demand, botched electricity deregulation and unscrupulous energy traders all conspired to create rolling blackouts, California partly ended the crisis by allowing prices to rise. As air conditioners were turned off, demand cooled and so did prices. A clever 20/20 rebate program, in which Californians received a 20-per-cent discount if their summer electricity use fell by the same amount, worked wonders.

California was able to achieve supply-demand equilibrium fairly quickly. Its per capita energy consumption has held steady since the mid-1970s; Ontario's has risen by at least a third since then.

The Suzukians think similar consumption-reduction efforts would work in Ontario, and maybe they would (their proposal to start a new tax in the form of a $440-million-a-year fund to promote energy-efficient technologies, financed by a 0.3-cent-a-kilowatt charge on consumption, is a complete non-starter). The problem is neither Ontario nor the rest of Canada have any incentive to do so and that's because the supply side of the equation rules.

Since the beginning of the petroleum era in North America, supply has ruled energy economics. If supplies of energy of any type -- oil, gas, electricity -- were about to run short, the problem was solved by ramping up production or imports.

In the United States, the theme was taken to the next level by NAFTA, which guaranteed U.S. access to Canadian energy. Since the Second World War, conservation was never an issue -- except once. The 1973-74 Arab oil embargo actually had one big positive effect.

It was the creation of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy program -- CAFE -- which required the fleets of each auto maker to meet average fuel economy levels. The CAFE standards were the first real attempt to form energy policy by squeezing demand instead of twisting open the spigot.

CAFE is now largely ineffective because Detroit's lobbyists managed to get SUVs and other light trucks classified as non-cars, thereby making them exempt from the more rigorous fuel economy standards of normal cars (remember them?). The dilution of CAFE is symbolic of American energy policy -- sink wells in your grandmother's garden if you have to and open the production floodgates.

In Canada, it's pretty much the same story. In Ontario, the philosophy applies to electricity too. Instead of dealing with juice shortages by reducing demand, the low-wattage Tories boosted demand by fixing prices at an artificially low level.

Unchecked demand means the fossil fuel and nuclear generating plants that Mr. Suzuki wants to get rid of won't disappear any time soon. Instead, the Tory energy policy has pretty much guaranteed the plants' life expectancy will be greatly extended. Ontario's annual population growth alone means reducing overall consumption by 5 per cent, let alone 20 per cent, will be next to impossible in the next decade.

The simple truth is consumers are addicted to cheap energy in all forms, and the politicians will deliver it to them.

So along comes Mr. Suzuki with his conservation report and -- surprise! -- the message immediately disappears into the ether.

Similar reports by other environmental groups will suffer the same fate. For the demand question to be taken seriously, North America needs a genuine and prolonged energy crisis, like an oil embargo or series of massive fires at oil refineries or generating plants. No one believes that will happen.

Nice try, Mr. Suzuki, but Canadians are very happy being energy hogs.

2003-09-20 Nice try, Mr. Suzuki, but we're addicted to energy (Globe and Mail).pdf66.33 KB