ALTERNATIVE ENERGY – PART IV

This is the final part in a 4-part series on alternative energy.

Imagine a day when GTA residents can take their kids to Mississauga’s Lakeshore Promenade Park, play in the splash park, walk along the boardwalk and tell tales about four towering smokestacks that used to rise above the waterfront, belching toxic smoke into the air from the burning of coal. The next generation won’t believe how ridiculous that sounds and hopefully, they will know nothing of burning coal, except as a historical anecdote. Maybe we’ll have moved on to something cleaner.

Unfortunately today we have to live with this coal-burning, and as policy- or market-imposed conservation is overlooked, power demand is only increasing. There were promises and commitments from all the parties in the recent provincial elections in Ontario about closing the ecology-destroying anachronisms that are the Lakeview, Nanticoke, Lambton, Atikokan and Thunder Bay coal-fired electricity plants. When that will actually happen, and what they will be replaced with is the burning question. The outgoing Tory government in Ontario promised to stop burning coal at Lakeview by April 30, 2005 and to phase out coal entirely by 2015. Ontarians voted in a (hopefully) more environmentally sensitive government and the Liberals said they will phase out coal by 2007.

What is clear is that fossil-fuel addiction is leading to the contamination of food, water, air, and to world-wide changes in the weather. Most agree that we have to stop treating environmental concerns as a stumbling block to economic progress and as environmental lawyer and activist David Boyd says in his new book Unnatural Law, sustainability is not a Pollyanish ideal to be sought after the way one seeks — but never achieves — world peace or universal liberty. But rather; “Sustainability…is an ecological, social, and economic imperative. The very survival of humanity depends on achieving sustainability, and changes to laws and policies will play a crucial role in determining whether our efforts are successful.”

CANADIANS AS CULPRITS

The alarm bells have been ringing for some time signalling Canadians’ resource dependency and energy over-consumption but like an obstinate child closing his eyes and blocking his ears, we are consciously not paying attention. There is a gross disjoint between what most Canadians think about the environment and what they do about it. Noted environmental scientist and activist David Suzuki put the pressure on the new Liberal government to address the problem of urban sprawl. What does buying a single-family dwelling sprouting out of farmland have to do with alternative energy, you say? Everything. It is all connected.

According to Suzuki most modern societies live as if they are disconnected from the rest of the world. “We don’t think about the consequences and the real cost of the way we live.”

Taking a more holistic view of our world and our actions we can see that everything we do has global ramifications. Buy a tomato from California instead of Ontario and think of the journey that prematurely picked tomato took. And no travel is benign. Fossil fuels were burned in a truck or train or ship to send that tomato all the way to your shopping cart. According to research by David Pimental of Cornell University, it now takes about 1,500 litres of fuel a year to feed a typical North American.

Alternative energy usage is critical to saving the planet. Experts in wind and solar and other alternative energy sources will all tell you that the notion of conservation has to be adopted before alternative energy technologies can be implemented in a widespread way. And conservation includes thinking about where you live (e.g. in the suburbs commuting to work or in the city taking transit), what you eat (e.g. local, organically raised foods or pre-packaged, long distance travelling food), and of course, where the electricity you use comes from.

HYDROGEN FUEL CELLS

In previous installments of this series we’ve looked at high-mass heating, wind, solar (active and passive), and embodied energy. There are, of course, other alternatives to nuclear, gas, coal, and oil. Looking with optimism to the future there looms the potential that hydrogen fuel cells may just be the saviour of the planet.

Transportation is the cause of a huge amount of global warming and this is where hydrogen fuel cells are poised to take over where fossil fuels leave off. The stumbling block to hydrogen fuel cells has been the inefficient means of producing hydrogen but once that is perfected the technology promises clean electricity, the only by-product being heat and water.

Among the recent hydrogen fuel cell initiatives that might surprise some is the announcement by the previous Tory government, “to the full ‘hydrogenization’ of GO Transit’s rail and bus services by the end of 2006.”

At the Canadian National Exhibition this summer a hydrogen fuel cell demonstration project opened up illustrating the potential of the technology not only for vehicles but for what is called “peak shaving”, an energy management practice whereby hydrogen fuel cells provide supplemental power in times of peak demand.

Of possible importance for the technology is an underreported joint statement by Spencer Abraham of the U.S. Department of Energy and Herb Dhaliwal of Natural Resources Canada on October 16 announcing a collaboration “on accelerating the development of the hydrogen economy as part of our broadening cooperation on energy.” While this may be a vague announcement and simply a goal or in their words, a “strengthening of cooperation”, it could bode well for the future.

MICRO-HYDRO

One clean source of energy is used in a massive way by Canadian utility companies and that is hydro. According to the Independent Electricity Market Operator (IMO), Ontario gets 7,669 megawatts of electricity from hydro, a little more than from coal, and second only to nuclear.

While hydro is clean, it isn’t always green since many hydroelectric projects involve massive damming of rivers and destruction, or at least disruption, of eco-systems.

While requiring a lot of site specifics, micro-hydro is a great and green alternative energy solution if you’ve got the access to moving water. Rob McMonagle, an expert on alternative energy and projects manager for the Canadian Solar Industries Association talked at the “Living Off the Grid” workshop earlier this year about micro-hydro systems. McMonagle says that the consistency of flowing water — as opposed to the unreliability of wind or sun — makes micro-hydro a consistent and reliable source of power. “Wind is really bad, the sun is better but micro-hydro is the same everyday,” McMonagle said.

For about $1,500 you can purchase the Aquair UW submersible generator that the manufacturer claims will provide up to 2.4 kilowatts per day from any fast-running stream (14.5 km/h) with as little as 13 inches of water. It can even be used on tideways and can be rigged with an arm to raise or lower the system if the water supply is subject to flood control or thunderstorm spates.

BIO-MASS

If wind and solar are the “sexier” of the alternative energy sources, biomass is the ugly sister. Biomass uses the energy content in all forms of organic matter including agricultural crops, forestry wood waste, and more creatively, the methane extracted from the decomposition of human and animal wastes, and municipal garbage.
While it isn’t as visibly stimulating as visiting the Windshare windmill on the Lakeshore, the Newmarket Composting Plant in Newmarket has one of the largest anaerobic digestion facilities for municipal solid waste operating in North America. This plant has the capacity to process up to 150,000 tonnes of organic waste per year producing more than 13 million cubic metres of gas, which can be converted into 2 megawatts of energy.

Biomass also involves converting starches of crops like corn into ethanol. Ethanol is then mixed with gasoline and the burning of which, produces less carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide, than regular gasoline. Not totally clean but a step in the right direction.

SOLUTIONS FOR URBANITES

Many renewable energy solutions are great options for rural residents, less so for suburban folk, and can be inaccessible to urban dwellers. But there are solid alternative energy solutions used in cities and more importantly, many things urban dwellers can do to contribute to that all-important prerequisite to the whole energy discussion: conservation.

Once we have embraced conservation we can move on to a new paradigm of locally produced energy so we aren’t reliant on this massive and volatile grid. Installing wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, Solarwalls, and other alternative energy solutions can help in this direction. According to Greenpeace, Japan started moving towards a system of community based electricity production more than a decade ago and now one in 10 households uses some form of solar energy. Another great example is how Denmark is showing the world what can be done with wind power.

Urban dwellers are quite often, for simple pragmatic reasons, forced into conservation. It is suburbanites that are the bane of the planet. Chugging SUVs from Oakville to Bay Street 10 times a week and then up to Muskoka on the weekend contributes massive amounts of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.

But even for those who live in cities and use transit or walk around, there are ways to be greener, to conserve, and to use an alternative way of thinking about energy consumption.

Why buy Chilean wine when you can buy wine from the Niagara Peninsula? Buy Canadian instead of French brie. Buy fruit and vegetables with the seasons and purchase from local farmers instead of imports.

Increasingly moving products around a planet that is increasing in population is also leading to the world just plain running out of oil and gas, according to announcements in October from a team from Sweden’s University of Uppsala. While this means that gas and oil prices may go through the roof a lot sooner than previously expected, the news is the best possible for the environment.

“The thing we are surprised of is that people in general are not aware of the decline in supplies and the extent to which it will affect production,” says the Swedish team. “The decline of oil and gas will affect the world population more than climate change.”

In other words, the doomsday predictions of global warming will never happen because the source of that global warming will be used up long before the world’s climate reaches a cataclysmic situation. Some major players in the oil business are paying attention and even those people, nations and corporations not interested in seeking out alternatives to oil and gas for environmental reasons will be forced into thinking about solar and wind and hydrogen as oil reserves deplete.

We have finally reached the stage where hardly anyone is denying the facts of global warming, peak oil and gas, and ecosystem degradation. What is challenging is to convince those in power how to deal with energy dependency. Maybe the “market” will lead us to alternative energy solutions or maybe government policy will; either way, it has to happen. When it comes to the individual one has to realize that the choices of our consumer society are not made in a vacuum. Everything is connected. One of the great benefits of the globalization movement is an increase in the choices of products available, but is the cost greater than the benefit received? This doesn’t mean you have to feel pangs of guilt every time you crave a mango or that irresistible St. Agur cheese from France or that to-die-for Belgian chocolate. Just being conscious of what you do and what you buy and where it came from can lead to an increase in local purchasing.

Be aware that in a discussion about alternative energy, buying local is not tangential, it is central. Buying locally produced (or baked or cooked or manufactured) food and other products is not an airy-fairy nicety best left to granola-crunching tree-huggers. Buying local food isn’t even an indirect way to help the environment: It is a concrete, real way of decreasing resource dependency, global warming, and environmental degradation.

Quantum physics teaches of the mind-boggling unpredictability of the universe due to its utter interconnectedness: It’s essential oneness. They say that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo it will affect the weather in Toronto. Well bring that philosophy and scientific reality into your everyday actions to realize that buying an apple in Toronto affects the weather in Tokyo too.

Embracing conservation, alternative energy sources, as well as adopting conscious living, shopping, thinking, all leads to energy reduction, less consumption and we will all be left with a better world.


References

Relevant Links:

www.davidsuzuki.org (The David Suzuki Foundation)
www.nrcan.gc.ca/es/change_e.htm (Climate Change and National Resources Canada)
www.toronto.ca/taf/ (the Toronto Atmospheric Fund)

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Paul Henderson is a valued Vitality contributor.

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