March 15, 2015
Energy revolution explored at Guelph symposium
GUELPH — Ontario is in the midst of an energy revolution, but the province is taking a confused approach to renewable energy, and remains stubbornly committed to nuclear, a symposium audience heard during the weekend.
Over 150 environmental activists, students and researchers took in OPIRG Guelph’s Social and Environmental Justice Symposium at the University of Guelph campus. Local, national, and international experts on environmental and social justice issues were a part of nearly 20 panel discussions.
While most of Ontario’s nuclear power plants are entering the end phase of their design life, the Ontario government continues to sink billions of dollars into extending their life, Angela Bischoff of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance said during a panel discussion on Ontario’s electricity future.
The province has more economically viable and renewable options, Bischoff said, but maintains a nuclear focus despite the lack of a nuclear waste storage solution, and the possibility of nuclear disaster in Canada’s most densely populated region. The province relies on nuclear power for 62 per cent of its electricity needs.
“We are at a crossroads now,” said Bischoff.
Most of the world’s 450 nuclear power plants were built in the 1970s and ’80s. They are getting old. Three hundred of them will be shut down in the next two decades, she said, and there are “huge risks” associated with extending the life of these plants.
But that is what Ontario is doing at the Pickering and Darlington nuclear power stations. Privately-operated Bruce Nuclear Generation Station, the largest nuclear power plant in the world, is also being refurbished.
“We can say no more lost causes,” said Bischoff, whose organization is credited with helping end coal-powered electrical generation in Ontario. “Why would we risk so much when we have a green energy alternative?”
She said Ontarians can demand that instead of spending billions more on nuclear, the province can use that money to create a 100 per cent renewable energy system by 2030. A system relying on enhanced conservation, wind and solar energy, as well as cheap, surplus hydro-generated electricity from Quebec is doable within the next 15 years, she said.
Evan Ferrari, a renewable energy and conservation consultant, said Ontario is undergoing a revolution in the generation, transmission, use and storage of electricity.
In just a few short years, there has been a critical mass of solar and wind energy generation established. The cost of generating solar is coming down, and instead of being centralized in a few generating stations, its production is spread out among thousands of individuals, and owned by co-operatives, charities and corporations. Power generation is becoming democratized, more grassroots than top-down.
“Large utilities fear the grid will become a network over which they have little control,” Ferrari said.
A country like Saudi Arabia plans to generate 50 per cent of its electricity from wind by 2032, and Ontario could choose to be on the same trajectory, he added.
Alex Chapman is acting corporate manager of community energy, infrastructure, development and enterprise for the City of Guelph. He said the Ontario grid is “not smart,” and is unsustainable. Localized generation is smarter and more sustainable.
Most of the $500 million annually that Guelph collectively spends on energy leaves the city, he said. “Yes, we can change this.”
Through a host of practical initiatives, the city’s community energy plan seeks to reduce per capita energy consumption by 50 per cent by 2031. District energy systems that hook a great many homes and businesses up to one local energy generating system is the way of Guelph’s future.
“As a community, we have the opportunity to turn ourselves into a net energy exporter,” he said.
OPIRG Guelph’s Social and Environmental Justice Symposium attracted nearly 200 participants.
“We are using this conference as a stepping stone into how to build partnerships and relationships between academics, students, community groups, and grassroots activists and organizers,” event co-organizer Sarah Scanlon said. “How can we make the research that students are doing more relevant and useful within the community, and how can we radicalize that research?”
All of the panel discussions, she added, were based on a preliminary call-out that asked people what they wanted covered during the symposium. A wide cross-section of issues was explored.
“It hit so many different types of interests,” Scanlon said.
Darius Mirshahi, another organizer of the symposium, said the event attracted grassroots activists from across Ontario who are “on the front lines of the struggles that some of this research is about.” He added that relationships between academics, researchers, activists and students were fostered over the weekend.
“I think as people started to realize what this was and what was going on here, it piqued a lot of interest across Ontario,” Mirshahi said, adding that all sessions were well attended.