Northumberland should be model on environment

First published:
August 27, 2003

The recent power blackout and subsequent recovery shone a spotlight on the need for energy conservation. Everything from energy efficient furnaces to fluorescent light bulbs is being pushed.

It is no wonder. The past 10 days are a grim reminder of what a bunch of power pigs we have become despite solid efforts to make us more energy conscious. As a province, we have made some great strides. In the 1960’s, Ontario Hydro predicted Ontarians would need 90,000 megawatts per day by 2000. Instead, we consume about 25,000 megawatts.

Our joint efforts to reduce power over the emergency were notable. While officials pleaded for us to collectively reduce our consumption, we were able to cut back by 4,000 megawatts or about 14 per cent of our usual amount. However, it was done because factories stopped, offices were shutdown and services were reduced. It is questionable how sustainable that kind of reduction would be.

Yet, we are clearly not doing a good enough job. The blackout was a spectacular look into our future, if steps are not taken.

With a provincial election waiting to be called, the politicians are ready with an answer. The Liberals pledge to reduce consumption by five per cent by 2007. There are few details regarding what exactly would be done.

The Tories have provided income tax breaks for factories that convert to solar or wind power. The government will lower its consumption by 10 per cent, but there are no deadlines and no plans for householders to reduce.

The NDP leader Howard Hampton has written an entire book on the subject. Nothing more needs to be said.

For the champions of privatization, the calls for lifting the 4.3 cents per kilowatt-hour ceiling have grown to a pitched fervor. The pressure to return to an open market must be unbearable for policy makers. Yet we have witnessed what a disaster it was when there was no checks and balances. Little has changed since that would guarantee small businesses and families would not end up with skyrocketing hydro bills once more.

It is also shortsighted to believe that hitting consumers in the pocketbook is the only way to get our attention. Those approaches are harmful because they place extreme financial pressure on those who are struggling in the first place, such as seniors on fixed income, the working poor and some middleclass families.

Rebate program are also being heralded as a solution, but often these programs are run by the government for short periods. Nothing has been done to study these ideas to see if they work over a long period of time.

Maybe it is time for local municipalities, like Northumberland County or the towns and townships, to take on energy conservation efforts by providing solid leadership.

One only needs to look at recycling programs to see what municipal governments can do in conjunction with the community. It took a little more than a decade to get a countywide recycling program in place. It was hard work and there are still many aspects of the waste management system that need to be addressed. Those problems cannot be ignored. Yet, our recycling program wins awards and is the envy of many municipalities.

It took unprecedented co-operation and some very tough debates, along with some very public battles between politicians and citizens to get to this point. (And those continued to be waged by some.) But it did happen.

Who would believe the number of homes with composters in backyards and recycling blue bags on the front lawn? Sure it took a combination of public education programs, cheap composters, a multimillion-dollar recycling plant, user-pay garbage and the closure of a number of local dump sites before it all caught on. And more could be done.

Energy conservation programs at the municipal level, with the aid of provincial and federal funding, could provide us with local solutions that would work long term. Like the many advisory committees, maybe an energy committee could be formed.

We have already witnessed how local businesses were able to respond responsibly to the energy crisis last week. Why couldn’t retailers continue to use half the lights, turn down air conditioning, allow staff to work from home and similar measures to reduce local consumption.

We have a windmill in the county that has never run. There is an abandoned power station that has never been used. What creative ideas could be generated to produce energy?

With the municipal elections coming up, this may be an issue the public should get behind. To wait for provincial policy and solutions, would be perilous. The public will not respond to broad-brush programs. This is going to take a community effort spurred by enlightened municipal leaders bringing the residents of Northumberland County together for our common good. We should be a model for the rest of the province.

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