Earth, wind or fire?

The problem of powering the province, Part 1, in which a banana turns nuclear, seals become biofuel, and a multinational oil company recommends wind power.

About a year ago, I attended an oil company presentation in St John’s. It was ostensibly a recruitment exercise, so I wasn’t expecting anything interesting to happen.

Then, while summing up, the rep told us that hydrocarbons were not the future. Instead, he recommended that Newfoundland & Labrador invest its oil and gas revenues in renewables, especially wind power. This would ensure that the province became self-sufficient, rather than having to deal with the vagaries of the international energy market.

I don’t know if this was the official company line or just his own perspective, but I was pretty startled. When multinational petroleum corporations start telling you that fossil fuels ain’t where it’s at, and to go local rather than global, you know something is up. Next thing they’ll be telling us that anthropogenic climate change is real.

Is the government actually listening?

The government must have been listening. A few months afterwards, Danny Williams announced the Lower Churchill deal, and now Premier Dunderdale informs us that the new hydroelectric project “will help support the development of wind power.” It seems that the die has been cast.

In this two-part feature, I will see if I can make sense of the ongoing power struggle.

But is that it? Do we just convert oil and gas money into wind and hydro plants? Certainly it makes sense to utilize local, renewable resources, but what are the best options for the long-term energy needs of Newfoundland and Labrador? And are these choices as clean and green as they might appear? In this two-part feature, I will see if I can make sense of the ongoing power struggle.

To begin with the obvious, it’s safe to say – unless there’s a sizeable population shift away from the Avalon – solar power is a no-go. Our tides are fairly small too, so we might as well leave tidal power to the Bay of Fundy, although wave energy could be worth a look.

As for biofuels, we’re not exactly blessed with great swathes of wheat, maize and sugar cane, so we’ll just have to generate bio-ethanol from root vegetables. There is, of course, a local, renewable source of bio-diesel, but the conversion of seals into fuel might not meet with universal approval.

Nuclear concerns

With the ongoing situation in Japan, nuclear energy isn’t exactly popular right now, and the number of provincial power stations (zero) is unlikely to increase. There has, however, been an awful lot of nuclear nonsense broadcast. Whilst reassuring to know that our monitoring equipment can detect particles emitted by Fukushima, for example, it isn’t newsworthy when the levels picked up are so stupendously low.

It’s more dangerous to be in close proximity to a banana

At a tiny fraction of the normal, background levels, it’s more dangerous to be in close proximity to a banana. Apply this logic to the rest of your life and you’ll soon be refusing to cross an empty road because in the middle of the tarmac there is a bolt from a car, and as it comprises one-millionth of a motor vehicle, it could therefore somehow careen along the ground towards you, mow you down, and kill you.

I was resolutely opposed to nuclear energy before the Fukushima incident, but then I started looking at the scientific data. Yes, it can be dangerous, but so can all large-scale power generation, and by deaths and pollution, coal, oil and gas are unquestionably worse.

If you detest nuclear on principle, rather than science, don’t worry. Plants won’t be opening here any time soon. The Department of Natural Resources lists uranium as a possible future energy source, but for now we’ve too much oil to sell, and hydro to harness. We have to consider all options, though, and uranium from Labrador should not be rejected out of hand.

Properly debate Lower Churchill

Equally, though Danny liked it, Kathy likes it, and Stephen says he likes it, we shouldn’t blindly accept the Lower Churchill as a good thing. The concerns about its impact on wildlife, the environment and local communities must be considered carefully by Nalcor.

If Muskrat Falls is part of a broader renewables strategy, Nalcor has probably made the right call. One decision it undoubtedly has got right is to pull the plug on west coast oil exploration.

The Parsons Pond project yielded no oil and a small quantity of natural gas, and sucked up an awful lot of provincial money. Geologically, the west coast is old and complicated and heavily fractured; it’s not that there are no hydrocarbons, just that drilling for them there is about as easy as trying to fish for trout by flying up above cloud level and then lowering a bucket from the plane. If the oil industry thinks it’s a goer, let them prove it themselves. They’re not exactly strapped for cash.

Maybe that’s why they can afford to be magnanimous, and suggest turning petroleum revenues into wind power. It will be interesting to see if this actually happens, especially if federal money for the Lower Churchill project turns out to be hypothetical. Either way, wind energy seems to have a lot of backing in the province. As we’ll see in part two, however, the idea that it represents an environmentally friendly form of power generation is open to question.

Stay tuned: Part II will appear April 19.

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