Thursday, March 29, 2012

Combining renewable power for reliability

Right-wing pundits were crowing this past week that green energy (by which they mean solar and wind) is unreliable and too expensive, so we should abandon any government subsidies. But they rely on a combination of falsehood and selective facts. In reality, ALL electricity generation is subsidized, and reliability issues plague most electricity sources.
One constant tactic by the pundits is to blame all of Ontario's electricity cost increases on new solar or wind supply, although in reality wind makes up only 2% of our supply and solar inputs are still negligible. Up to this point, neither one of them has a significant impact on electric bills. The other thing they ignore is to treat any renewable energy subsidy in isolation, never mentioning (for example) the $367 million a year we pay in subsidies for coal power we're not using, or the billions of dollars we have paid, and continue to pay, in all kinds of subsidies for nuclear energy. And they never look at the huge impact on our economy from coal or other polluting energy sources in terms of health costs, lost productivity, and lower crop yields. If you actually look at renewables in the context of all our various electricity supply policies and costs, they are a comparable price.  Wind is already competitive with other sources on the open market, and solar soon will be.
What the pundits mean by “reliability” is actually dispatchable generation, electricity generated right when you need it, idle when you don’t. Yet the only major power source in Ontario which truly does this is natural gas plants. Run-of-river hydro (like Niagara Falls) is either gathering energy, or letting the water flow by. Coal power ramps up or down over a slower timeline; at best to match predicted hourly demand. Nuclear is always on, so they call it baseload power; you can’t turn it on and off as needed. Current demand often dips below base load supply, so we periodically must pay to dump excess nuclear power.
But there is more to reliability than dispatchability. Wind and solar are intermittent, but we know there will always be some windy days, and the sun will rise every day, and both of them are free. We don’t know gas costs of future years, so we can’t rely on gas-fired electricity to stay cheap. Nuclear plants also have reliability issues. Shut down by the big blackout of 2003, it took days (rather than the expected hours) to get them back up. Every time we take a nuke offline for maintenance or repair, it takes longer than expected, and vastly higher cost, to get it up and running again.
To better use solar and wind, we simply need storage capacity. One form of storage on the horizon is the batteries of electric or plug-in hybrid cars. Connecting to the grid when not on the road, they will allow storage of extra electricity when sun & wind are generous, to be drawn back at times of peak demand.
Yet even without batteries, renewable energy can be on-demand with the concept of the Combined Power Plant. This is where different renewable generation sources, like solar, wind, hydro and biomass plants, are linked in a single supply system. When wind and sun are abundant, hydro builds up reserves and biomass is idle. When they are not, hydro and biomass draw on their reserves as needed to make up the difference. Computers match them to minute-to-minute demand fluctuations. This combined system is just as reliable and powerful as a conventional large-scale power station, as was successfully demonstrated in Germany five years ago.
Although Ontario hasn’t enough dam-based hydro to do this on a large scale now, we could certainly pair our solar, wind, and biomass with hydro imported from Quebec and Manitoba, or possibly new dams of our own on James Bay, for a reliable, 100% renewable electricity supply.

A shorter version of this was published in my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Combining renewable power a bright idea".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of the Ontario School of Economic Science and Earthsharing Canada

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Earth Hour: mindfulness and a Super Drive

The past winter that wasn’t (subject of an upcoming column) couldn’t be a more clear and blatant signal from Mother Nature that we must find a more sustainable lifestyle as quickly as possible. This means scaling back, rather than expanding our use of tar sands oil (see my March 8th column), and using renewable energy instead of more nuclear power (another upcoming topic). Overall, it means learning to prosper while consuming less energy and materials. Luckily, energy efficiency is cheaper than energy expansion, and conservation is free. We don’t lack the technology, just sometimes the will.
Earth Hour addresses that. Switching off for an hour on a Saturday night won’t generate significant electricity savings, especially since it’s during a low-demand time already, when we have (due to nuclear plants) more electricity than we need. But the true purpose is to flip a switch in our minds, so I hope you’ll be taking part.
For the third year, the Barrie Green Party will do our part by hosting our Earth Hour Super-Drive. This is your chance to clear out the old electrical or electronic devices you don’t need anymore, or that have broken down. We’ll be filling a GreenGo Recycling truck with anything that used a plug, battery, or chip. Old cell phones are a special item of interest; please gather and bring them to us.
And while we’re being mindful of the planet, we can also be mindful of the needs of the less fortunate in our community. The Barrie Free Clothing Centre is undergoing renovations for a grand re-launch, so it’s a great time for you to clean out a closet and donate wearable used clothing. Food is another basic need that sometimes can’t be met on a limited budget, so we’re also taking donations to the Elizabeth Fry Grocery Assistance Program. Some cans or boxes of food can light up a hungry family in a way no light bulb can.
And this year we’re doing a special celebration of Earth Hour with a candlelight reception for Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner. Despite switching off the power, the house will be filled with electricity as we share drinks, food and conversation.
The Earth Hour Super-drive takes place on Saturday, March 31st between 1:30 and 4:30 PM in the parking lot behind 110 Dunlop St W, off Toronto Street. If you have items you can’t easily transport, email beforehand and we’ll arrange to send our truck to you. For tickets to the Earth Hour reception that evening, visit or call 705-730-7591. And wherever you are, take some time next Saturday evening to switch off the ever-present electronic hum and appreciate some natural peace.

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Earth Hour Super-Drive offers opportunities"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of the Ontario School of Economic Science and Earthsharing Canada.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Relive your Love: education in action

One of the best ways of learning is doing, so education programs where students accomplish real-world tasks are a great way to enhance academic study with practical experience.
I did the co-operative education program at the University of Waterloo, working a total of 2 years in various corporate and government positions. My wife started her teaching career even earlier than most, through a high-school co-op program where she assisted in a primary classroom. Nowadays, it seems that most secondary and post-secondary institutions offer a variety of co-op programs where students can spend one or more terms putting their early lessons to use in a real workplace. I’ve even come full circle; after being a co-op student in the early 90s, I now find myself supervising high school and college co-ops working for volunteer organizations I help run. 
Another way to marry practical effort with study is through class projects that support or create a real-world application. Georgian College’s new Event Management program is one example. Events are important to most industries, both business and non-profit, so students with these skills can expect to find work in many areas. But while learning how to plan events this spring, Georgian’s class is also putting on a real one: the Relive your Love event supporting Gilda’s Club Simcoe Muskoka.
You may recall comedienne Gilda Radner, who became famous in the original cast of Saturday Night Live. Her comic genius was cut short when she died of ovarian cancer in 1989; she had noted that cancer gave her “membership to an elite club I’d rather not belong to”. From that quip came the inspiration for Gilda’s Club, an organization founded by her friends in her honour. Its clubhouses provide supportive spaces for men, women, and children with cancer to meet, discuss, and share their experiences. 
A week from today, on Thursday March 22nd, the local chapter of Gilda’s Club will benefit from a romance-themed fundraiser at downtown Barrie’s new Mady Centre for the Performing Arts. The event starts at 6:30 PM with cocktail reception featuring a live band and gourmet hors d’oeuvres and food stations, before moving into the theatre at 7:30 for a gala screening of the Oscar-winning 1973 film “The Way We Were” starring Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford.
Each $35 ticket includes not just the film, but a drink, food, popcorn, live entertainment, and a chance to win items in the raffle. Funds raised will be split between Gilda’s Club and the Georgian College Events Management Scholarship.
For tickets, call 705-739-4228 or go online to If you or your business would like to be a sponsor recognized at the event, contact Lauren Hill at 705-790-9169.

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner, published as "Co-ops can have some far-reaching benefits"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of the Ontario School of Economic Science and Earthsharing Canada

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Tar sands an integral part of the fatal fossil furnace

A recent study by my friend, Nobel-recognized Canadian climatologist Andrew Weaver, created a tornado of spin supporting tar sands expansion. It’s even drawn the enthusiasm of prominent climate skeptics, only too happy to cherry-pick the study and misrepresent its results.
All Weaver has done is state the obvious: there is far more coal buried around the world than oil in the sands of Alberta. That’s nothing new. He’s provided some calculations which show that burning all the world’s coal will cause far more global warming than burning all the Athabaskan bitumen. 
But that doesn’t mean dirty tar sands oil is harmless. Far from it! Tar sands boosters put forward the puffery that we need to transition from dirty coal to cleaner oil. But our expansion of bitumen extraction isn’t in any way aimed at reducing coal burning, it’s meant to feed expanded consumption and production. It will be added to coal emissions, not subtracted from them. Coal extraction itself requires large amounts of diesel fuel and other oil products to power the digging machinery, transport trucks, trains, and ships. They are all part of an interlinked system dependent on fossil fuels of all types. One also can’t overlook that cleaner natural gas is used to produce dirtier tar sands oil used to transport dirtiest coal to wherever it is burnt.
And none of this considers the major effects on air and water quality, and massive deforestation, another global warming driver.
The International Energy Agency reports that to avoid unacceptable warming, we must not build any new fossil fuel infrastructure. That means no new coal plants, no new pipelines, and no expansion of the tar sands. That tar sands are just a fraction of global carbon reserves doesn’t let them off the hook. Treating their warming effect of .4 °C as too small for concern is the classic fallacy of composition, when you say “my part is small, it doesn’t matter in the big picture.” But when that argument is used by every participant and you add them together, the total is huge.
It’s like saying “it doesn’t matter if I pee in your pool, my pee is only a tiny percent of the water”. True, but if all swimmers take that attitude, pretty soon you have more pee than pool! Each of us will only ever play a small part, but unless most of us do our part, the problem will only worsen. As the Lorax warns, “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
The solution? Immediately begin shifting our investment to clean, renewable energy, while using conservation and efficiency to economically reduce our needs. More on that in future columns.

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner, published as "Oil-sands emissions no different from coal"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of the Ontario School of Economic Science and Earthsharing Canada.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The colour of privatization is ORNGE

Watch the above video here.

Disturbing facts and allegations are coming to light about Ontario’s air ambulance service ORNGE, including excessive salaries, nepotism, taxpayer-funded profit-making schemes, and failure to provide expected medical services. The suspected $6.7 million helicopter kickback dwarfs the alleged Airbus cash collected by former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. So what is the overall lesson in this story?
Many people, especially through social media, are using this to heap scorn on the McGuinty Liberal government. For them, corruption or incompetence in any publicly-funded endeavor is further ammunition to tar the minority premier. Yet in their eagerness to attack, they undermine their own ideology.
More than anything else, ORNGE is the saga of privatization of public service. Before ORNGE, air ambulance service was managed directly by public health officials. But over the past decade, in the push for privatization, it was thought wise to hand it off to a private corporation.
The aim of privatization is to get the same level of service at a lower cost. Less public administration is a path to save money or control rising expenses. A service “run like a business” will theoretically be better at finding savings or innovation in a competitive market. Government sets the standard and the price, then the winning bidder is paid the set price to meet that level of service. What could be simpler?
Well, ORNGE demonstrates the resulting complexity. Many complain that top executives of government-owned agencies or corporations are overpaid. Yet their compensation pales in comparison to the millions of dollars in salaries, bonuses, or stock options top executives or owners of private corporations collect, all while staying off the “sunshine list”. Meanwhile, at the bottom, it’s expected that salaries of non-unionized front line employees will be lower, creating the “savings”. The better executives can restrain general payroll through layoffs or salary cuts, the more profit they or their investors can pocket – all bankrolled by taxpayers.
Meanwhile, public authorities have less oversight or control of the day-to-day operations of the service, or the major capital decisions, such as fleet purchases or facility construction. When the owners create lucrative spin-off companies, lie to investors about their qualifications, or find other ways to profit from publicly-funded infrastructure, government can at best play catch-up. One of the purported benefits of privatization is reduced need for oversight, so it would be silly for government to heavily monitor a service it has already sold off. So they don’t, and this is what happens.
Those opportunistically using the ORNGE fiasco to attack the governing party need to realize their underlying message: privatization is a failure, we need bigger government to directly manage more aspects of society. Is that really what they want to say?

UPDATE: The Green Party of Ontario has just released a position that follows the ideas of this column, and calls for a review of all P3s (public-private partnerships, the term politicians and business use for privatization of public activity) in Ontario to prevent similar waste or abuse of taxpayer funds in other areas.

2013 UPDATE: I was sent a link to this video, which makes a some very good points about why government should NOT be run like a business.

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Attacks on government over ORNGE misdirected".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of the Ontario School of Economic Science and Earthsharing Canada.