A Better Energy Plan? Environmentalists, Unions and an Evolving Relationship

 There’s an ad running on the radio these days attacking small-scale power generation and smart grids while supporting the use of big natural gas plants as a long-term energy solution. It’s an attack piece on wind and solar electricity generation masquerading as concern for the future of power generation. The advertisement invites people to check out their website (abetterenergyplan.ca) where they argue that wind and solar are unreliable and that an attempt to move towards these renewable energies would destabilize our grid. The site primarily attacks the idea of two-way electricity transfer, i.e.: the ability for average citizens to build some form of renewable energy instalment and be able to sell excess power back to the grid. In essence, the ‘better energy plan’ is a thinly veiled attack on Ontario’s Green Energy act.

This means that this plan is firmly against the general consensus amongst sustainability-focused environmentalists that, when it was passed, the Green Energy Act was one of the best pieces of environmental legislation that North America has ever seen because of its commitment to wind, solar and a decentralized power grid. It should be noted that this is more due to the weakness of North American environmental legislation, rather than the strengths of the act. But all things considered it was still good legislation. The implementation of the act has, unfortunately, not been a smooth one, largely due to organizational pushback and a challenge through the World Trade Organization but even with these challenges it still has provided a boon to Ontario green energy and eased the transition from coal. These ads do not mention the green energy act by name, however, so their scope is enough to challenge the use of these forms of renewables anywhere and therefore the real defense must be made of wind, solar and two-way small-scale decentralized power grids rather than simply the Act itself.

Wind and solar provide the best options for sustainable renewable energy in current conditions. Natural gas is definitely preferable to coal, but it’s still a CO2- emitting fossil fuel, so it shouldn’t be treated as anything more than a stop-gap measure. With regard to to decentralized and small-scale energy grids, there are three main advantages. The first is an environmental advantage: sustainable energy, such as wind and solar, fit best within this type of system. Due to the ability to sell excess power for a profit, a solar system on the top of a box store or a windmill on farmland is far more valuable and therefore enticing if its connected to the grid. If we want to entice private parties or businesses to build green infrastructure we’ve got to give them a reason and two-way decentralized energy grids are the way to do this.

The second is a social advantage: this form of two-way decentralized power grid draws some power away from the government and large utilities and puts it back in the hands of regular people. One of the least sustainable aspects of our world today is the fact that a vast majority, likely well above 90% in developed nations, are strictly consumers and a very select few, are producers in any real sense. This dichotomy separates the consumers and producers leaving consumers largely oblivious to what they are purchasing and producers only caring about convincing everyone to buy more. In this system consumers have little power to change what is produced besides simply buying from a different producer they like more, which is hardly much of a choice at all. The recent movement that emphasizes eating local and growing your own food is a rejection of this basic premise. The two-way energy grid, one that is in full force in many areas of the world, is a transportation of this movement to energy. Given that both food, and energy are products that each of us needs on a day-to-day basis they are easiest opportunity to change this system as at the very least we ourselves can serve as a market for the products produced and therefore providing value for the investment. A more sustainable world is a more equitable world—equity in all senses, including the consumer-producer relationship.

The third is an infrastructural advantage: a fully decentralized grid would be far more resilient to power outages than a centralized system. Within a centralized system, long power lines are required to transport any amount of power. The loss of one power plant is a massive blow to the system. Utilities must keep enough power constantly on back-up in order to deal with the chance of their largest power plant failing. However, in a well-executed decentralized system, most power would be available within a short distance and no one power plant would be expected to bear a significant enough portion of the load to be a major concern if it failed. We are far from a place where this could be a reality, but to criticize it simply because it’s not fully attainable now is certainly short-sighted.

All of this is to say that the ‘better energy plan’ that is touted by these ads would be a significant step backwards in terms of a sustainable energy plan. But this is where it gets interesting. The energy plan is touted by a union, specifically, the Power Workers Union, leaving environmentalists in a bind. Unions are typically lefty bastions but the PWU has gone right before. Specifically, in 1995 they helped the Harris government and the ‘Common Sense Revolution’ come to power. Environmentalists are left with the decision to either push back against these claims and risk alienating possible allies, or stay silent, and allow the union to trash Ontario environmentalists’ greatest victory. For the time being, it seems that silence is winning out, but in the end it likely will not matter. What it does provide however, is a firm reminder of the complexity of the political landscape and the fact that environmentalists cannot expect to always find allies on the left. As environmentalism continues its push into the mainstream, it will likely have to branch away from any political stripe and find its allies where it can.