Thursday, September 24, 2009

Making green while the Sun shines

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner:

I am about to take a big step into the sunlight. Put another way, the sun's about to become my silent financial partner.

I'm going to be (probably) the first person in Barrie to plug into Ontario's new solar feed-in tariff.

What does that mean? Basically, it means I'll have solar panels installed at my house, the power they generate will be fed directly into the grid (not into my house), and I'll get paid 80.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour (kWh) they produce as a monthly cheque, made out to me. It will add up to around $4,000 per year, which means they'll be paid off in no time (I'm financing them, so I don't even have to pay anything up front). The rate is guaranteed for 20 years.

I'm just about dancing with joy. I get to help green-up the grid with clean solar power, and instead of paying a penalty, I'll be getting paid to do it. Paid handsomely, I might add.

Let me roll the calendar back a bit. The Ontario government realized a while ago that adding solar power would be a good thing, for many reasons. But they weren't willing to do much to make it happen, and local utilities were another big hurdle.

First there was "net metering." That meant that when your solar (or wind) generator made electricity and put it into the grid, it ran your meter back, and you were "un-billed" for the same amount.

When it was sunny (or windy), your meter ran backwards, and when it was dark (or still), it ran forwards. If you were lucky, you could net your bill to zero, but that was the best you could hope for -- there were no refunds. At this rate, a panel (or turbine) might never earn back the cost of buying it. You were greening the grid, but paying a price to do it.

This wasn't getting much interest, so Ontario upped the stakes with the "standard offer contract". Recognizing that solar power comes at the time of peak demand -- and peak price -- the province offered a premium, paying 42 cents per kWh of solar electricity (11 cents for wind). But this was also too meagre, as it meant you might break even after 20 years -- or you might not. Too much depended on the fees charged by your local utility, and there were bureaucratic hurdles.

Uptake was ... underwhelming.

Finally Ontario looked around the world to see what actually worked, and has adopted a successful system from Europe. To jump-start the benefits of local renewable generation, the price has been almost doubled, to a proposed 80.2 cents.

Local utility obstacles were swept away. On top of that, the federal government lets you write off half the purchase price in the first year, and half what's left each year thereafter -- potentially saving you thousands in taxes. It's called an accelerated capital cost allowance.

You can also write off some of your home maintenance costs each year. Combined, that means you can pay the system off in as few as four to five years. You are then getting pure profit (and still some write-offs) for the rest of your 20-year contract. Even if you borrow money to get started, the net expected profit over 20 years could be over $50,000. That's a lot of green for going green.

What happens when the contract expires after 20 years? Then the system switches to net-metering, which means that for every kWh I put into the grid, I get a free one back when I need it. Nowadays, that's not much of a deal, but the projected electricity cost 20 years from now is about $1 per kWh, so it will be similar to what the feed-in tariff was paying.

Through pioneering approaches like this, Germany created hundreds of thousands of jobs in renewable energy. Ontario is now poised to do the same -- with my (and your) help.

I'll be hosting an open house once the panels go up, so watch for news of that in this paper. I'd be thrilled if you came out to see how it works, and perhaps you'll leave with plans for your own solar income.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Short films a glimpse into the future of cinema

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner:

While people may dismiss short films as a juvenile or insignificant pastime, to me they represent nothing less than the past and future of cinema.

The first films ever made were shorts, as the medium's inventors experimented with technology and audiences. Many all-time classic cartoons, now considered children's fare, premiered as shorts in adult screenings not originally aimed at children.

My own introduction to repertory cinema was through shorts. Studying at the University of Waterloo, I was peripherally aware of the Princess Cinema, which screened foreign and independent "art" films -- not something I ever expected to follow. But classmates dragged me to a shorts showcase and I was hooked. It was the Sick & Twisted Animation Festival, or something similar -- lots of cartoons that were hilarious and a bit too much (or a lot too much) for TV. (This was long before the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, of course.)

It was exactly what thrilled rowdy students. A similar attraction was a compilation of the year's best commercials from around the world. If you think TV ads are boring, you should see the amazingly funny (and risque) ads that run in Europe. We also saw very moving, even shocking, public service announcements. If all ads were this great, we'd prefer them over the shows.

Before you know it, I was a Princess Cinema member and expanding my horizons beyond the short and silly. But I still hold a soft place for them in my heart, and upon moving here and learning of Barrie's annual film festival, what drew me in was the shorts program.

Shorts also represent the future of cinema. Many famous directors got their start with a popular or critically-acclaimed short. Remember the hopping desk lamp and other characters of early Pixar work? Pixar now has dozens of Oscars, billions in sales.

This summer's sci-fiand social commentary hitDistrict 9began as a six-minute short film which so impressed Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Ringsfame) that he bankrolled a $30 million full production. Disney shorts screened before black-and-white movies paved the way for the colourful feature-length productions that spawned an entertainment empire.

After falling from prominence in the 80s and 90s, short film has seen a massive resurgence with the ability to upload your work to the world on YouTube-type sites.

One of my favourite volunteer roles is with the Short Film Competition of the Barrie Film Festival. Although I help here and there with the organization, my chief task is taking part in judging the films submitted. It's an amazing experience. I get to see all of the dozens of films sent in by budding young cinematographers, or lifetime hobbyists.

There's good, there's bad, there's certainly ugly, but each expresses ideas and feelings. Sometimes the judges quickly agree on a film (whether great or ghastly), but other times we are sharply divided. Humour that seems fresh or clever to one, is a groaner to another. Luckily, we have a complex grading system to systematize our reactions and create a numeric ranking.

The result is quite a showcase of talent. As many as half the films screened are produced by Simcoe County residents. And about half are by high school or college students. These give a window into the amazing artistic sensitivity and technical skills that our youth have, and show that our area produces artists with a compelling vision. We also get submissions from around the world.

Most important, you too can be a part of this. If you (or someone you know) has produced a short film -- submit it. You could win a prize, or an audience. The Short Film Competition is taking submissions right up until Sept. 25. Visit contest information. If you're worried about the postman missing the deadline, they can be dropped off in person with Julinda at Bandito Video (in the Wellington Plaza) right up to the 25th. Don't be shy -- we look beyond technical merit to the value of expression.

Even if you aren't a filmmaker, you will certainly enjoy attending the Shorts screening at the Imperial on Oct. 17, voting for your favourite film, and meeting the filmmakers at our special reception afterwards.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Where there's smoke, there's election fire


(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner:

Deja vu as my phone rings: it's A Channel needing footage for a story about preparing for a potential fall election. Pull out the signs, pose for the camera. The cycle repeats; election-calling begins in earnest.

Another fall, another election? That would be four federal elections in just over five years. At $300 million each, what a waste of public money. There's your billion- dollar boondoggle.
Being a Green Party politician, I'm constantly asked, "Will there be an election?" and "When will it be?" Well, it's not up to me or my party, so I can't answer categorically. But since I pay more attention to this than most people, I can watch the smoke signals and speculate if smoke means fire.

Much of this election talk misses a key point, focusing on whether Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff will trigger it or not. Often forgotten is that it's not Ignatieff's call. He doesn't have enough MPs to vote down Prime Minister Stephen Harper's minority government. That requires the near-unanimous support of all three opposition parties. So if Iggy wants an election, he'll need New Democrat Leader Jack Layton and Bloc Quebecois boss Gilles Duceppe on his side.

Are they?

On one side are those who see MPs guided by principles, with motives broadcast in public statements. These messages say: Election. The NDP have long opposed Harper's government and voted against it (inconsequentially) at every turn. The Bloc's sovereigntist sentiment is repeatedly slapped in the face by Harper's messaging, not to mention many slights against Quebec overall. For them to prop him up seems unimaginable. Furthermore, both parties risk alienating their base supporters if they even give Harper the time of day.

Yet this ignores a critical factor: polling. Right now, the Bloc and NDP are each polling around 10% below their support in the last election. They would have to increase their vote just to hold on to current seats, and have little hope of real gains. Even treading water will mean spending millions of dollars of money they don't have, still paying off last year's debt. When it comes to a conflict of noble principle versus partisan advantage, which do you think wins out? The ambiguity or life-lines we've seen both parties throw toward Harper in the last week should answer that question.

Then add Iggy's first consequential act as leader, unilaterally ripping up the coalition agreement he'd signed just the month before. Since then his attitude towards them has been . . . less than collegial. On what basis does he assume they'll happily hand him the election he wants? More likely they'll make him wait powerlessly, for a few weeks or months at least, just to even up the score. Maybe they'll take a page from former Liberal Leader Stephane Dion's book, and skip the vote. That way they aren't directly supporting Harper, but won't trigger an election, either. That they criticized Dion for doing the same last year is problematic, but not insurmountable.

Conservative mouthpieces have been set loose, so Harper takes the situation seriously. Minister John Baird and columnist Monte Solberg have both been recently quoted in this paper criticizing Ignatieff for selfish posturing. Rather than following the will of Canadians who want government to focus on the economy, Iggy wants to trigger an unnecessary election merely to increase his party's power. They're right.

Yet these exact same criticisms applied to Harper himself when he unilaterally pulled the plug last fall, breaking his own promise and law to do it -- just to gain some seats. I'm not sure who's the pot and who's the kettle, but blue and red call each other black with breathtaking hypocrisy.
But my view of Ottawa is second-hand and from afar. I know another person with a much closer viewpoint, and she'll be at the Southshore Community Centre in Barrie, today.

Although Green Party leader Elizabeth May has no vote in the House, she has decades of connections with the people -- elected and appointed -- who will be making these decisions. And unlike any other party leader, she actually takes audience questions -- and answers them.
So if you want the real lowdown, come out and meet Elizabeth at this public event, and bring your old electronics for the E-waste drive by PALS Computer Tech & Training in support of the Seasons Centre for Grieving Children.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Barrie's first Car-Free Sunday

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner:

As gas prices rise and climate crises mount, one thing is becoming certain – we really need to pry ourselves from our cars. Driving everywhere is bad for our health, our environment, our economy, and our children. Obesity rates rise; smog is a perennial issue. Constant road repairs and widenings mean tax hikes. Kids shuttled everywhere lose out in many ways – they don’t get enough exercise, and miss out on the freedom and independence to choose their own times, routes and destinations. The cost of owning and operating a car is a significant expense – the equivalent of hundreds of hours, or several months, of work each year. If you could get by without, you’d be saving all that money and could bank it or spend it on something more rewarding.

But the general feeling is one can’t live in Barrie without a car. Of course, that’s an overgeneralization, but it certainly can be hard to get around in this city, or from here to other cities, without driving. Yet there are growing opportunities for transit and “Active Transportation”, and the more we use them, the more they will grow.

What is Active Transportation? Pretty much anything besides driving. Obviously walking or cycling. If you’re coordinated, skateboarding and rollerblading also qualify. Even taking the bus counts, since very rarely does it stop at your door and right at your destination; most bus trips include a walk to and from the bus stop at each end. Buses create far less traffic and pollution than multiple cars, so using them helps everyone.

Unfortunately, Barrie Transit isn’t always a convenient option. Many trips require changing buses and going out of your way, and even if there is a direct route, buses may be a half hour or hour between. Frequency and convenience need to be increased to attract more riders – but that can only be done as ridership increases. It’s a Catch-22.

Barrie has some bike lanes, but more are sorely needed. The existing ones often end suddenly, or don’t match up with others, putting you back in the street with the cars before you get where you’re going. With all the road work going on, it’s a crying shame that more of these re-built roads aren’t getting bike lanes as part of their upgrades. We need to pressure our councillors to keep improving bike lanes and transit routes. We also need public spaces and workplaces to provide secure bike parking.

Getting out of Barrie without a car can also be a challenge. There is bus service to various cities, but you have to start from the downtown terminal or, if you’re lucky, you can catch the bus on the way out of town. The GO Train is the big story in this respect. Very convenient – if it’s going to the right place at the right time. This is a service which would be better if it had trains going in both directions all day. At least the new Allandale station will increase access for those who don’t live in the south end.

So show that you care and come out to Barrie’s first Car-free event this Sunday, from 9 am to 1 pm. Our most scenic road – Lakeshore Drive from Tiffin to Minet’s Point – will be closed to cars and open to everything else. There will be bike rodeos and buskers, exhibits at Southshore Centre, entertainment, and fun family activities. Free skateboard and rollerblading workshops will be provided, along with bike inspections. You can learn how to set up a walking school bus – the healthiest and safest way for kids to get to school.

If it’s too far for you to walk or wheel, you can print your own free Barrie Transit passes on the web – go to or and use the Walk or Wheel quicklink. A free shuttle bus will be running from the Transit Centre to the event.

By coming to this event, not only can you have a great time in beautiful surroundings, you can also learn new things. Most important, you can show Barrie that we care about Active Transportation and want more – more bike lanes, more walkable communities, better transit. And more Car-free Days!

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.