Energy conservation schemes a tough sell with public

Canadian Press
The Globe and Mail
July 30, 2006

Toronto: As temperatures soar across the country, Canadians are being reminded to dim the lights, turn down the air conditioning and join provincial governments in embracing a culture of energy conservation.

But while most critics agree people have good intentions, they say preserving the country’s fragile electricity resources is still relatively low on the national priority list.

The call to conserve electricity is expected to be particularly urgent in Ontario next week as forecasters predict the temperature will hover around 30C for several days.

Tom Adams, executive director of Energy Probe, acknowledged that appeals to the public have been well-received to date, but said the strategy will eventually fall on deaf ears.

"I think it’s fair to say that as a long-term strategy to keeping the lights on, appeals to the public are likely to wear off," Mr. Adams said in an interview.

"I don’t think we can expect consumers to be untiring when it comes to being asked to inconvenience themselves."

Jim Nelson, marketing manager with BC Hydro and the man responsible for promoting the province’s Power Smart conservation effort, agreed customers are only willing to go so far.

"My observation is people want to do the right thing and say it’s important, but given all the pressures of their home life or their business, it does end up not being a top priority, and that’s just natural," Mr. Nelson said.

The Power Smart strategy was designed to make it easier for customers to participate in a number of energy conservation projects, the most successful of which has been a program to distribute compact fluorescent lightbulbs to households, Mr. Nelson said.

Thanks largely to that program, Mr. Nelson said roughly 50 per cent of BC Hydro’s residential customers have taken part in Power Smart programs since its launch in 2002.

Similar giveaway programs have been implemented in other provinces, including Ontario, but Mr. Adams and other critics say they fail to address key conservation issues.

Mr. Adams said customers frequently negate the effects of the new energy efficient bulbs by leaving them on longer than they would have before.

Such programs, which are frequently endorsed by the provincial government, are impractical and ineffective, said Ontario Conservative Leader John Tory.

"The fact we’ve had demand that has reached new records or approached new records several times this year already speaks for itself in terms of whether you have created a culture of conservation in Ontario," Mr. Tory said.

"My argument would be we have not."

Terry Young, communications director with Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, took a more optimistic view of customer engagement with conservation efforts.

The IESO monitors daily power usage across Ontario 24 hours a day, and while he did not provide statistics, Mr. Young said there has been some improvement in the province’s power situation since this time last year.

“What we’re seeing is that when demand is high, businesses are responding (to appeals), customers are responding (and) there is a growing awareness of the importance of conserving."

Mr. Young added the IESO has not had to issue any official requests to cut back on power consumption this summer compared to 12 such occasions in the hottest months of 2005.

Mr. Adams attributed the improvement to an increased power supply and lower temperatures rather than better consumer conservation practices.

Mr. Young agreed the power supply is expanding thanks to the presence of new hydro plants as well as wind generators providing a new source of green power.

An independent company, Bullfrog Power, is also making inroads into the market by offering customers the chance to light their homes with environmentally friendly electricity for an extra dollar a day.

Tom Heintzman, Bullfrog’s president, cited the 1,000 residential customers the company attracted in less than a year as proof Canadians care about preserving electricity resources.

But Mr. Adams remained skeptical about long-term prospects for Canada’s power grids.

"In the interim, consumers can really make a difference by being as careful as possible with how they use electricity," he said. "At the same time, I think our official agencies need to rethink their whole approach."

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