The language of energy politics

Consider this news item that aired on Citytv (Toronto) on August 11th. It concerns the Ontario NDP’s energy plan going into the next election.

A couple of things about this video made me want to highlight it here.

First, the obvious laughs including bongos at an NDP rally and Jack Layton’s boastful speaking style (Maclean’s recently highlighted a study that had Canadians comparing Layton to a friendly dog if he were an animal. If Layton were a musical instrument, I think he’d be a weathered trumpet).

Moving away from musical analogies to those of energy and power (which during the piece were interesting and sometimes clever), the second item I wanted to highlight was this awkward phrase which caught my attention:

“[The NDP’s plans aims] to dramatically reduce hydro consumption here in Ontario while promoting renewable energy sources”

The last time I checked hydro electricity meant electricity derived from moving water and this form of energy production is certainly a “renewable energy source”.

Of course, the true meaning is probably closer to the reality that “hydro” has become something of common parlance in Ontario, a slang replacement for “electricity”; when we talk our electricity use, we talk about the “hydro bill”.

On closer inspection however, if we look at Ontario’s electricity mix, we discover that 22.3% of our energy comes from hydro electricity, while the lion’s share (54.1%) comes from “clean”, non-renewable but abundant nuclear energy. In fact, if we don’t include “other” (1.2%), Ontario’s GHG-emitting electricity production (from coal and gas) amounts to 22.4%. So, when we talk about “hydro consumption” as an interchangeable term for “electricity consumption”, the substitution lacks a bit of parity.

If we combine nuclear and hydro, we get 76.4% “clean” and “green” energy mix in Ontario.

How can we increase the proportion of “green” energy to Ontario’s mix? We can increase nuclear output, tap a few more rivers/waterfalls and we can focus on increasing the “other” category which includes building more windmills and solar farms to take that 1.2% to, well, more.

Originally thinking that the NDP had made a gaffe by calling for the reduction of “hydro” in place for “renewable sources”, I checked their website to discover that their “green” energy plan actually rails against nuclear energy in favour for “publicly owned and publicly controlled electricity”. Oh, and renewable? Yes, they eventually talk about the need for that too.

But what is “renewable”? Concerning what we’ll discover to be a positive but ambiguous word, on “renewable” the Ontario government states:

“The Ontario government is committed to the development of new renewable sources of electricity generation. The government has set a goal of five per cent of all generating capacity in the province to come from renewable sources by 2007 and 10 per cent by 2010.”

Is hydro not a “renewable” source of energy?

I certainly can understand the need for overall reduction of consumption (ie. a decrease in “hydro” electricity consumption), but Ontario’s electricity generation mix is quite healthy and the plan to bring more nuclear energy online is an efficient and positive one when it comes to cost and benefit to the environment and the people of Ontario, respectively.

Is nuclear not a “green” form of energy?

Massive amounts of energy are derived from the nanoscopic scale of a nuclear fission reaction. In fact, it’s among the reasons why the discovery was so revolutionary. Worries of meltdown are virtually a thing of the past with CANDU reactors being specifically designed with critical fail-safes. The storage of the waste material produced is on a much smaller scale, yet detractors of nuclear energy will describe the production method as “unclean” whereas promoters might be quick to correct and call it “clean but imperfectly so”. Solar energy is still at a point where the energy vs. the cost of implementing the technology is break-even over a solar-cell lifetime (production and use) of 25 years. Granted, investment is needed to drive down the production cost (via economies of scale). Comparatively, wind power requires large use of materials, over long periods of time to derive comparatively paltry levels of electricity.

Nuclear is efficient has little environmental impact. Why do self-proclaimed environmental activists rally against it?

From an engineering perspective, we want select methods of energy production that maximizes output, minimizes cost and minimizes waste. From a political perspective, politicians balance the minimization of cost with that of waste, depending on the perspectives of the electorate to which they pontificate.

On this point therefore, success is in communication, but unfortunately the language of energy politics can be redundant and even misleading when it comes to “renewable” sources of energy, “green” and “clean” electricity and even when it comes to the word “hydro”. I imagine that as we get closer to October’s provincial election, while the facts of energy production will remain the same, the language of political communication will gather more smog.

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