New electricity plan brings some relief

First published:
Nov. 20, 2002

Numerous announcements came gushing out of Queen’s Park last week like Niagara Falls. This generated considerable energy for beleaguered Premier Ernie Eves and the Tories as the government put an end to skyrocketing electricity bills.

It began early last week when Eves announced a price freeze on hydro rates for consumers of 4.3 cents per kilowatt-hour, along with a rebate retroactive to May 1.

This was followed two days later by Energy Minister John Baird and newly appointed Commissioner of Alternative Energy Steve Gilchrist provided details of plans to get Ontarians to lower hydro bills. The pair boldly challenged consumers to follow the government’s lead and reduce electricity usage, along with buying renewable sources of electricity.

Talking about conservation at this point is a bit like closing the barn door after the horses are already out.

Certainly, no one can argue the importance of conservation, particularly after getting hammered with hydro bills that looked like the national debt of some developing countries.

The Tory government was nowhere to be found back in the summer when electricity prices took off for the stratosphere: July was 6.2 cents, August 6.9 cents and September 8.3 cents. Officials from the electrical distributors were begging people to stop using so much power. Only a few took it seriously, if that.

And it seems as if the current challenge from the government’s dynamic duo of energy conservation, Baird and Gilchrist, will be met with the same lack of enthusiasm.

A quick walk around any neighbourhood in Northumberland County over the past weekend is met with all kinds of people putting up Christmas lights on their homes with more than a month to go. Heck, even Cobourg went ahead with its Christmas Magic ceremony Friday, lighting up Victoria Park.

Sure, it sounds like Scrooge to make this point. And heaven forbid anyone would be critical about Christmas. It would not be hard to imagine the response from neighbours after suggesting they might want to wait a few weeks to hang Christmas lights.

And Christmas Magic is a wonderful community event and it is beautiful.

Then, why drag it into a debate on energy conservation? Because these are the tough choices nobody wants to talk about. It is the same as suggesting people turn off air conditioners in the middle of July.

But it is these choices we need to start making if we are going to take energy conservation seriously.

Besides, everyone in Northumberland, and across Ontario, knows the drill: replace aging furnaces and windows, use energy efficient light bulbs, buy energy efficient appliances, etc. etc. etc. Sure, heating and cooling bills can be cut by half. And yes, everybody knows an energy efficient home sells for an average of $8,000 more than unimproved homes.

Yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah, blah. Give us a break, you say.

But here is the nub. If Eves didn’t step in and freeze prices, people’s pocketbooks would have felt the sting even more over the holidays. If bills were through the roof before, it would not be hard to imagine the massive payments due after Christmas.

People were mad about high hydro bills. Understandably. But now that there is some relief, some people think the responsibility ends. It is as if we can go back to our wasteful ways and nobody will pay any more attention.

Ontarians have a chance to do something. As Eves suggests, the price freeze will not last forever. We have until 2006, a mere four years, to get our act together.

Just look at how serious some communities take energy efficiency.

Peterborough’s Green Up program is a non-profit charitable organization with a focus on environmental issues such as waste reduction, water and air quality, water conservation, energy conservation and greenspace enhancement. Residents can get advice on a wide array of issues. Home performance experts will come and visit residents to provide advice.

There were a few similar efforts to provide businesses and residents of Northumberland with energy audits a few years ago, but nothing of the scope and mandate of Green Up. The county has its committees for waste reduction, but, again, nothing to match.

Municipal leaders should consider a partnership with Lakeshore Utility and Veridian to take steps to meet specific targets within defined timelines. Local politicians have shown great resolve in dealing with tough issues like no smoking bylaws and public school closures. Maybe the same attitude could be used for energy conservation.

It will be interesting to see what kind of response Baird, Gilchrist and others will get as they try to change the public attitude. Former Premier Mike Harris was extremely good at hitting the pocketbook hard to get attention. He overhauled education, health care and municipal government using the technique. Many complained. But tough choices were made. Eves chose not to take the same course as his predecessor.

The proverbial horses are back in the stall. Perhaps it is time to demonstrate some initiative rather than apathy or we will deserve to see high hydro bills again in the future.

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