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Renewable energy’s dilemma

In Canada, steadily rising energy costs can cause financial hardship. The Fraser Institute reports that over a million Canadian households now spend more than 10 percent of their income on electricity and heating, which, it says, “should be of central concern when policies regarding energy are being devised.” Globally, many people have no access to an electrical grid; if this affects their quality of life it’s known as “energy poverty.”

Renewable energy’s dilemma

“Although Site C is not the project we would have favoured or would have started, it must be completed,” B.C. Premier John Horgan announced last month. His government had been debating whether to continue building the controversial hydroelectric dam – flooding 5,500 hectares of the Peace River Valley – or to cancel the project, which would likely lead to higher hydro rates for B.C. residents long-term. It was a “difficult decision” that had to weigh many factors, including environmental, economic and Indigenous concerns.

 
   

Canada’s growing innovations in clean energy technologies promise jobs and reduced emissions. Renewable energy – mostly hydroelectric – currently provides two-thirds of Canada’s electricity supply. Efforts in renewable energy are ripe with hope for the future but also marked by the kind of conflict happening over Site C. Peter Schuurman authored two Christian Courier articles about the wind energy debate (see links at bottom), suggesting that at the core of these conflicts is deep distrust. “Such feelings can best be overcome by due diligence that honours the authority of the municipality, pursues collaborative rather than confrontational methods and keeps control of the projects in the hands of local private owners who show concern for public interest,” he concluded.

In Canada, steadily rising energy costs can cause financial hardship. The Fraser Institute reports that over a million Canadian households now spend more than 10 percent of their income on electricity and heating, which, it says, “should be of central concern when policies regarding energy are being devised.” Globally, many people have no access to an electrical grid; if this affects their quality of life it’s known as “energy poverty.”

Is renewable energy – wind, solar and hydroelectric – the answer?

A moral conundrum
Canada is “the seventh-largest producer of wind energy in the world, thanks in large part to Ontario’s green energy program,” according to the Huffington Post. In 2016, wind farms were the largest renewables employer. Opposition to wind power, however, remains active across the province. A Chatham-Kent group called Water Wells First has been fighting the development of a new wind farm, citing tests done at several farms in the area. These show that well water has been harmed since the pile-driving required for turbine installation began. Dave Cameron, one of the protestors, says he isn’t against wind power as long as companies can ensure there is no permanent impact on local groundwater.

Solar energy is one of the “cleanest and most abundant” resources. Yet some claim that solar’s high cost limits access and broader use of this renewable resource. Stan Greshner, vice-president of an American NGO called Grid Alternatives, says that “the fear is, if only the wealthy go solar and pay less toward the electrical grid, then the only people left to pay for it will be those who can least afford it.” Therefore “there’s an interest in ensuring that low-income families are a part of the solution and not the only ones left on the grid to pay for the grid.”

Zon Engineering Inc., a solar energy company based in Southern Ontario, is “founded on the ethics of environmental responsibility, social justice and professional integrity.” The company’s President and Senior Engineer, Jordan Hoogendam, told CC, “We believe that renewable energy is not just the solution for solving climate change but is inherently a transformative way to empower people. Renewable energy by its nature . . . is democratic and decentralized, and literally puts the power in the hands of the people.”   

The Bala Falls controversy
Hydropower has a long history in the Muskoka region of northern Ontario, “being the first . . . in Canada to generate electricity utilizing water, dating back to 1894.” Despite that history, a new hydro plant project in the small township of Bala has created a lot of controversy.

The town of Bala was built around the Falls. It’s the main tributary connecting the Algonquin and Muskoka Lakes watershed to Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. Local businesses depend on the Falls. To the Wahta Mohawks, the Falls is a part of their First Nations history; even if, as Chief Philip Franks says, “Our people don’t necessarily use [the canoe route] any more . . . it’s kind of a heritage point.” Rob Stewart, biologist and filmmaker, says, “Residents and many opposing the plant believe the government has failed to properly assess the environmental impact of the project and ignored the community’s safety concerns for tourists, swimmers, boaters and fishermen.” Despite overwhelming opposition to the plant, and a 12-year battle that tried to block it, construction on the hydroplant began last fall. Protestors continue “to voice their disapproval and concerns about negative economic, heritage, aesthetic and environmental impacts.”

    
   

The vice-president of Swift River Energy, the company building the dam, says that “this project is reallyabout restoration and modernization. There was already a power plant here from 1924 to 1972.” The architects have planned a visitor-friendly design. They hope a new park and portage area will attract even more tourists to the area. The plant will not run during fish spawning season, and a new spawning bed proposal is supposed to mitigate any habitat loss. The lead architect of the project, Karl Stevens, comments, “We have to act locally and think globally. Every time you turn on that light, the power is coming from a gas power plant, a nuclear power plant, or it can come from renewable energy. . . There is nothing more Canadian, more safe, more reliable than hydropower.”

Yet this project has cost community trust. As biologist Stewart comments, “Real green energy doesn’t fly in the face of democracy; it shouldn’t come at a cost of ecosystems, species, the rights of First Nations and the wishes of the people.”

A hopeful way forward
Creativity is called for in resolving conflict and making green initiatives accessible. Operation Noah, for example, is a “faith-motivated, science-informed and hope-inspired” Christian charity that addresses climate change through action campaigns and theologically-based resources. Their Bright Now campaign encourages churches to divest from fossil fuel companies and invest in clean alternatives. In a few weeks, Citizens for Public Justice will launch its Lenten campaign inviting Christians across Canada to shrink individual energy usage and to petition the government for bigger changes (see sidebar).

Grid Alternatives provides low- or no-cost solar power for low-income families and affordable housing developers throughout the United States. The NGO also trains and hires people from disadvantaged communities. They work abroad in Nicaragua and Nepal setting up solar power systems for schools, health clinics, homes, farms and small businesses not served by the grid. While no such low-income solar programs currently exist in Canada, Hoogendam tells CC that “Some of the most exciting projects in the world are taking place where there are no established ‘electrical grids.’ Solar and renewable energy represent a transformative technology . . . [and] our development efforts internationally would be much better spent on setting up remote micro-grids that can support the communities’ needs. . . . Renewable energy is readily scalable, and cost effectiveness is directly linked to demand [and usage]. If you look to areas suffering the brunt of climate change – most recently the Caribbean ravaged by hurricanes – renewable energy is being looked at as a solution to rapidly restoring the grid.”  

Related Articles:
Wind turbines divide communities and twist green energy plans

Do your research: A briefing on wind turbine spin

About the Author
Renewable energy’s dilemma

Candice Goodchild

Candice Goodchild is a teacher by trade, a hopeful foster mom and an at-home momma learning to live life to the full in all its beautiful adventure and mundane chaos.