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Could we get by without new power?

If most of us lived like Dave Braden, could Ontario get by without $40 billion worth of new nuclear power plants? Would the lights still glow brightly in Toronto if we didn't erect a generating station on the eastern waterfront?

Braden is a beef farmer, small-scale developer and municipal politician who builds energy-efficient houses. His designs slash heating-fuel consumption and — key to a debate over Ontario's energy future that's to play out at public hearings across the province this in February — cut electricity use at least in half.

"In an ideal world, we could get to where we need to go through conservation and renewables like wind," Premier Dalton McGuinty said this week. "But we don't live in that world. We live in this one."

Efficiency advocates insist that "ideal" world can, and should, become the real one. Braden's house is part of their effort to move "green" alternatives into the mainstream, and to change the way we produce and use electricity.

Since 1980, Braden has constructed about 50 super-efficient homes for a variety of customers in southwestern Ontario. The latest — on his property in Flamborough, a rural suburb of Hamilton — is for his family. When finished this summer, it will be among the top energy savers in North America.

Our current houses are "like going out in winter with a T-shirt on," he says.

Except for the wide windowsills, his new version looks ordinary. And, apart from a fridge and freezer imported from California, it doesn't employ expensive, high-tech gadgets. Instead, it boasts extra-thick walls, made airtight with plastic film and packed with insulation. Windows are placed to heat the interior in winter; in summer, they're shaded and create cross-draughts to make air conditioning unnecessary. Lights and appliances are the most efficient models available in local stores.

"We want stuff that's easy to understand and really can't go bad," Braden says.

The features could be incorporated in single-family homes, townhouses or walk-ups, in any size of development, anywhere. The main elements increase the cost by no more than 8 per cent, he says, and payback is fast.

"The public simply doesn't know you can ask for this. We want to create a demand. We want big developers to be putting up 2,000 or 3,000 of these every year."

Advocates of conservation and energy efficiency would rejoice.

They argue that if we used electricity more carefully, and produced what we need from renewable sources — water, wind, solar and biomass (energy from decomposing garbage in landfills, and farm and forest-industry waste) — we could do away with coal and nuclear power plants, and all the costs, risks and environmental damage that come with them.

No one appears to know for sure if that's possible. But a couple of things seem clear.

First, while Ontario uses electricity far more efficiently than it did even 15 years ago, it's still far behind many European countries and even some American states with similar populations and economies. If Ontario did as well as these others, it wouldn't need all of the $40 billion worth of nuclear plants proposed in a recent report by the Ontario Power Authority — the provincial Crown corporation responsible for ensuring an adequate, long-term supply of electricity. And Energy Minister Donna Cansfield wouldn't be compelled to offer assurances, as she did yesterday, that coal plants would stay open in a power crunch.

Second, the province could do much more to determine whether the alternative way is possible.

"There just isn't that much happening," says Mark Winfield of the University of Toronto environmental studies department, who wrote a recent analysis for the Calgary-based Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development.

McGuinty's government has made some moves, including the announcement it will buy power from homeowners who set up solar panels, and launch another ad campaign for energy conservation.

It has made only timid stabs at measures most experts say are crucial — tougher efficiency standards for buildings and appliances. Financial incentives, such as sales tax rebates, have been too small for any impact.

The main initiative — "smart meters", which cut electricity rates if consumers use power when demand is low — will help, "but it's not the centre of an efficiency program," Winfield says.

Meanwhile, developers toss up energy-wasting buildings. Inefficient appliances stay on the market. Cash continues to pour into mega-projects, including the $4.25 billion refurbishing of four reactors at the Bruce nuclear power station near Kincardine, on Lake Huron.

Of $1.2 billion in electricity projects announced up until late last fall, only 13 per cent went to conservation projects. The rest is for new sources.

The province talks about conservation and renewable sources, Winfield says. "But if you follow the money, it's clear where it's putting the dollars. They're low-balling the efficiency potential (and) largely preparing to rebuild the system we already have."

His report, one of the few that attempts to put numbers on the potential of aggressive moves toward conservation and renewable sources, concludes Ontario could have all the electricity it needs without coal or nuclear plants, at about half the cost and with far less risk than the power authority's plan.

It is "possible to reduce projected demand by more the 40 per cent by 2020... using proven technologies that are commercially available today."

Change would require the same political will that propelled construction of the Canadian Pacific railroad 120 years ago, or the water-based power system that served Ontario well for much of the last century, says Ralph Torrie, a veteran consultant on energy issues.

"If you said, `We're going to do this as a government — we'll put efficiency in place,' you could achieve success rates that would blow all other experience out of the water. We haven't made the commitment."

The power authority unveiled its plan in a "Supply Mix Advice Report," presented to Cansfield on Dec. 9. It is the subject of province-wide public hearings between Feb. 13 and 17 — a time period so brief that critics call the "consultation" a whitewash.

The report notes demand is rising as the province shuts its coal stations and its nuclear plants end their operating lives.

It recommends spending $70 billion over the next 20 years. Most would go to adding 15,000 megawatts of generating capacity, more than half the province's current total. About $40 billion would be devoted to nuclear plants.

The plan includes as many renewable sources of power and as much conservation as it's reasonable to expect, says Neil Freeman, the authority's director of planning, policy and approvals.

It is to be reviewed every three years, and is flexible. It takes a long time to get approvals for nuclear plants and then build them. Starting that process now merely keeps options open.

The big constraint is that Ontario needs a certain amount of electricity that's predictable and constant, Freeman adds. It's called the "base load," and it's always at least half of the province's total capacity. Conservation programs can't eliminate it, and, for a long list of technical and financial reasons, alternative sources can't produce it.

This is where the critics start to dig in.

Our current system is dominated by a few, huge plants producing electricity that must be transmitted long distances, notes Walt Patterson, an energy expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, an independent research centre in London. It's set up to generate enough electricity to meet demand, no matter how wasteful the demand is.

We're in a panic because the system is nearing the end of its life, and, it appears, must be rebuilt, Patterson notes in several papers on energy policy.

Yet, he says, that system is overly complex, wastes enormous amounts of power, damages the environment, discourages efficiency, and can't reliably produce the high standard of electricity demanded by the likes of paper mills and computer chip makers.

It's also risky, Winfield says: "The power authority places 50 per cent of supply in one technology. In our plan, the failure of any one technology won't be a catastrophe."

Reliance on nuclear power just makes things worse, critics say.

The authority "is counting on nuclear plants being built under budget, and operating flawlessly, two things that have never happened in Ontario," says Jack Gibbons of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, a coalition of environment, health and conservation groups that led the fight to shut coal-fuelled generating stations.

The power authority estimates the cost of building them is $2,845 per kilowatt-hour — the amount of power needed to keep 10 100-watt lights burning for an hour. It also assumes that, over their lifetimes, nuclear stations generate power at 85 per cent of their capacity.

Gibbons points out the Darlington nuclear station, Ontario's newest, cost more than $4,000 per kilowatt-hour, and none of Ontario's plants operate at 85 per cent capacity: In 2003, they averaged 51 per cent.

And, he says, the Bruce refurbishing deal is far more generous than the contract terms offered for other sources of power, or conservation projects.

Its owners get a set price, tied to inflation, for the electricity it produces. Government agencies will pay for fuel and insurance, and help to cover cost over-runs — which past performance suggests are inevitable. Penalties for missing deadlines are lax. Governments are stuck with the expense, estimated at billons of dollars, of getting rid of the highly radioactive reactors and used uranium fuel.

The Bruce project is "a poster child for the fact that the nuclear industry can't compete on a level playing field," Winfield says. "It needs extraordinary guarantees."

The power authority estimates Ontario's electricity consumption will increase by 0.9 per cent a year. Combined with closing of coal and nuclear plants, that will create a shortfall of 25,000 megawatts in 2025.

New sources totalling 10,000 megawatts have been announced. The biggest, the revamping at Bruce, and several gas-fuelled generating stations.

The power authority assumes conservation measures could save, at most, 4,300 megawatts, but calls 1,800 more likely.

It also estimates renewables could produce another 6,700 megawatts by 2025. Those sources have limits, it says.

Since wind is neither predictable nor steady, and electricity can't be stored, production often fails to match demand. On top of that, many of the breeziest places are far from transmission lines and consumers.

Solar power is expensive. Waterpower is generally considered environmentally benign. But most of Ontario's untapped rivers are in parks, and potential imports from Labrador or Manitoba would require transmission lines that occupy vast amounts of land.

The power authority's critics argue it allows too small a role for generating stations fuelled by natural gas, especially those that use the same energy to produce heat or run industrial processes. But, Freemen says, gas will be too expensive for anything but specialized uses.

That leaves nuclear — as many as 24 new or refurbished reactors with a total capacity of up to 12,400 megawatts. That's the mix the province says it will decide on by late March. Critics will argue it should be rejected.

For a start, technology could vastly increase the potential for renewable sources. Wind energy might be stored, perhaps in advanced batteries, or hydrogen to power fuel cells. Solar cells are bound to get cheaper.

They also question how fast demand will grow. Gibbons says the power authority's estimate is nearly twice the average since 1990, and its report, "has provided no evidence to support its assertion that a 50-year trend of declining electricity growth rates will, all of a sudden, reverse itself."

Even though Ontario is losing energy-gobbling manufacturing and resource industries, the power authority assumes the economy will stay as it is, Torrie says. It also assumes that the use of electric home and water heaters, an inefficient practice accounting for one-third of electricity consumption, won't change.

"It's a very simple forecast without a lot of thought in it, and we're building an elaborate supply mix on this foundation of sand," Torrie says.

There's no doubt Ontario could get much more efficient. The steps range from easy things people can do at home, starting with turning off unnecessary lights, and switching to low-energy bulbs, to major and complex changes in industries and the power system itself. Advocates say effective solutions boil down to tougher efficiency standards for buildings and appliances, and financial support to pay for changes.

The message, says Torrie, is simple: "Let's look at the alternatives. We have some time. Let's make sure we get it right."