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Voluntary Conservation is Not a Solution

In the wake of this weekend's blackout, we have been hearing serious requests for energy conservation from our premier, our mayor and other politicians.

Ernie is asking major businesses to cut back to 50% today. Mel is upset about neon lights on Yonge Street. We shouldn't be using our air conditioning, but many of us are.

In fact, it really seems like most people and businesses are already back to normal. For example, on Saturday, when I still didn't have any power, Home Depot had the A/C blasting, and all sorts of demonstration items operating.

When it comes to voluntary measures, only a small portion of people are going to comply. These are most likely to be the people who already use the least... people who already think about conservation and are aware that a lack of air conditioning isn't fatal.

Maybe I'm being too cynical. In an emergency like this, perhaps there will be more people chipping in. I just haven't seen a great deal of evidence yet.

In the bigger picture, conservation could have helped prevent us from getting here. But not voluntary conservation. Market-driven conservation could have been effective.

In other words, if Ernie Eves had not instituted a price freeze on hydro, we may not have even had a blackout. We'd have been using less electricity and perhaps been able to take care of ourselves. In the long run, we'd also have a variety of new power supply options coming online. Instead, here's where we stand now (from today's Globe):

Ontario can't supply its own electricity needs and there is no prospect that it will be able to do so for many years. Its nuclear program remains crippled while the private sector the Tories hoped would come to the rescue by building new generation plants is sitting on the sidelines. There are authoritative warnings that 40 per cent of the generation capacity will shut down in the next 15 years and additional concern that the massive transmission grid is being starved of the money it needs for refurbishment.

This is not to say that it's Ernie Eves' fault that there was an international grid collapse. Ontario energy users were just part of the problem of demand exceeding supply.

Nor do I blame Eves for the price freeze. He knew it was either that or lose his job.

Still, there's no doubt that Ontario's policies are part of the reason that our power system is a mess. Just hoping voluntary, uncoordinated conservation will help us balance supply with demand won't work. (Just like it won't work for our Greenhouse Gas emissions.)



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