Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Our Natural Gas Problem

Nova Scotia's offshore natural gas fields have turned out to be a curse rather than a blessing. The promise of great volumes of cheap natural gas nearby has led to the buildout of a significant gas infrastructure within the province, and now that the offshore gas is nearly gone we are left with lots of buildings and industrial boilers fitted to consume more natural gas than we have access to, which means that in the dead of winter the price of gas spikes - not really spikes; more like skyrockets. That's never a good thing.

When the Sable Offshore gas finds were developed in the late 1990's there were no local markets for gas, as there had never been pipelines into the Maritimes to deliver the gas. Natural gas is ubiquitous in many other parts of the country - when my wife built a new home in Burlington, Ontario in the late 1990's there were three utilities laid down on her street as the subdivision was developed - water and sewer, electricity, and natural gas. The gas was used for space heating and cooling, hot water and a gas fireplace, and it was incredibly cheap. I expect that gas was mostly from western Canada, brought to Ontario by pipeline.

Five years later Beth had a new house built in a suburb of Dartmouth; no natural gas was available so the furnace burned oil, the fireplace burned propane and there was no air conditioning. There is still no gas in that neighbourhood.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Chipping Our Hardwood Forests for Newfoundland

Holyrood Thermal Generating Station (Google Earth)
Bob Bancroft has recently pointed out (Halifax Herald, 6 Feb) that the Point Tupper biomass generating station has quietly resumed full production, consuming 60 to 70 trailer loads of wood daily.

The Halifax newspaper has also reported that the Maritime Link is now in operation, working backwards from its design intention, and it now being used to ship power to Newfoundland. 

Newfoundland gets a lot of its power from smallish hydroelectric plants all around the island as well as a few oil-fired plants, but the largest and most important of their power plants is at Holyrood, just outside St John's.  This plant typically supplies 25% of the province's electricity, and sometimes as much as 40%. A few years ago one of the turbines went down in winter and customers were being forced to conserve power and reduce their demands until the repairs could be made.

This plant burns light oil, typically diesel fuel, although I seem to recall that at one time it was burning raw crude from one of their offshore wells.

Now, the plant has been idled because Newfoundland can import power from Nova Scotia across the Maritime link, the huge undersea cable that was to bring electricity from Muskrat Falls in Labrador to Nova Scotia. Muskrat Falls is not yet in operation so it appears that an equally good use of the Link is to provide electricity to Newfoundland, presumably at a lower cost than operating the oil plants at Holyrood.

Nova Scotia Power uses a mix of fuels to generate its electricity. They have a few small hydro plants, a tidal plant at Annapolis Royal, several coal burning plants, most notably at Trenton and Lingan, a natural gas/oil plant at Tuft's Cove in Dartmouth, and, of course, the biomass plant at Point Tupper. They tend to use the coal plants to service the base load - coal plants are slow to bring online and do best when they can just chug along day in and day out. Gas turbines are the most flexible, as they can be kept spinning (almost in idle) and can be brought on very quickly when the load spikes. (Even countries like Germany which get so much of their power from wind turbines have to keep gas turbines ticking over and ready to take up the load when the wind suddenly dies.)

The load managers at NS Power probably use sophisticated calculations to decide which power plants to use at any point in the day: factors might be current load, projected load, plant capital cost, plant availability, fuel costs, degree of utilisation (can we use each plant at peak efficiency?), geographic location, availability of power from the inter-provincial grid, and more. It does appear, though, that when all those calculations are done, it pays Nova Scotia Power to chip our old growth forests to fuel the biomass plant in order to sell power to Newfoundland. In purely dollar terms, it is cheaper to chip our forest than for Newfoundland to burn oil. I cannot imagine that there is a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from burning our forests instead of oil.

Bob Bancroft made an important point in his 6 February op-ed. He said that the decisions that are made about our forest are made by people, with names. Bancroft said he knew some of them. And some people in Nova Scotia have decided that it is acceptable to chip our hardwood forests and reduce the land to a moonscape in order to turn a dollar from Newfoundland. Natural gas is really expensive this month, but NS Power could sell coal or gas electricity to Newfoundland for a higher, fairer price, or Newfoundland could run their own oil plants. Is it really in Nova Scotia's best  interests to destroy our forests for Newfoundland's benefit?  

How do those people sleep at night?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Mr Scheer Comes to Town

Hon. Andrew Scheer       photo:CBC
Hon. Andrew Scheer, Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition in Canada was in Halifax a few weeks ago, to address the Annual General Meeting of the Progressive Conservative Party of Nova Scotia.

During his speech he took a little dig at the Atlantic-Canadian Liberals, saying " Thirty-two members of Parliament all toeing the party line, being a spokesperson for Ottawa ... in their own ridings instead of being that strong voice for their ridings in Ottawa . . . " (CBC reporting)

The first thing that came to my mind was: there were quite a few Conservative Party MP's in Atlantic Canada prior to the last election, and now there are none. Now what does that tell you?

Monday, March 5, 2018

It's Time to Join the NS PC Party

About a year ago I joined the national Conservative Party of Canada. I can't believe that I did that, given that I would never vote for them in a general election, but I wanted to have a hand in choosing their new leader. Initially I thought that I would vote for the two or three most reprehensible, reptilian candidates (there were lots to choose from), on the grounds that if their leader were a truly awful person there would be no chance that the party could regain power.

But then I realised that in the year of Donald Trump just about anything would be possible, and my strategy could very well backfire and the awful party led by a truly awful person just might win power, and then I would have to share the responsibility. So I changed my strategy and voted instead for the three or four candidates whom I thought seemed to be decent human beings, and who might just be decent Prime Ministers. Of course I was voting for what used to be called Red Tories, back when the Progressive Conservative Party prided itself on being socially progressive and fiscally conservative. That Party died when Peter MacKay and his friends "sold off the Party for parts" (in the words of Michael Ignatieff) and the Conservative Party of Canada (really just the rump of the Reform Party) is still floundering around looking for an electorate (that doesn't exist) in numbers great enough to return a government.

Here in Nova Scotia the Progressive Conservative Party is preparing to choose a new leader in the autumn, and the odds are very good that whoever is chosen will become Premier at the next election (3 years away). The governing Liberals were just barely able to retain their majority in the recent election, and now with the Premier fighting with the teachers and with the doctors I would suggest that they are fast losing the support that they had. The new leader of the PC Party will have to work hard to lose the next election.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

On Inequality: Our Own Elite

The Occupy Movement of recent years drew attention to the gross inequality between the income and wealth of the 1% and that of the other 99% - the rest of us. Other groups release statistics like: the richest x% of people own more than the bottom 50%/60%/75% of people. These are shocking statistics to be sure, but in his important book The Vanishing Middle Class, MIT professor Peter Temin argues that in the United States of America there exists two parallel economies, one for the FTE sector (people who work in Finance, Technology and Electronics)  and all the rest. He suggests that the FTE sector consists of about the top 20% of income earners, and the cutoff line is income of about $60,000 annually. (A first class high school English teacher would earn about $50,000, leaving him/her out of the top group.)

Temin makes two important points: any analysis of the economy in the USA that treats the entire economy as a monolith will badly skew the real results. When the same metrics are applied to the parallel economies separately it becomes clear that the rich are doing very well indeed, and the others are not doing well at all.

He also suggests that for most of the folk in the FTE sector there is little chronic worry, and little apprehension about what the future will bring. They do not endure food insecurity or shelter insecurity, they have good health insurance, they do not fear prolonged unemployment, they reasonably expect that their children will have a good education and will prosper, and that their children will inherit substantial assets. And one of the reasons that they feel secure is that governments in the USA work for them; policies and programs are introduced or massaged for the benefit of the top 20%. News coverage of the recent tax cut in USA has made that very clear.

The bottom 80% of income earners generally do endure chronic worry, and the future of their children is not at all ensured.

On Inequality: Government Policy

I would like to be a member of a special interest group, a big group that can catch the ear of the Premier. I want to be one of the insiders, the ones in the know. I want to be a member of the group that actually influences public policy. That group currently consists of Liberal party insiders (not the rank-and-file members), personal friends of the Premier, the industrial barons, and the senior bureaucrats

Our special interest group actually exists, but we have not yet come together. We are citizens, taxpayers, voters, many of us volunteer in the community, many of us want to make a bit of difference in the lives of others. We care about future generations, we care about leaving the earth in good condition for our grandchildren. We think that jobs that degrade our environment are not really very good jobs, and not jobs that we should encourage. But government does not seem to hear us, or if they do, they try not to let on.

There was a telling pundit comment in the media a few weeks ago at the time of the announcement of a new candidate for the job of leader of the Progressive Conservative Party; it was that this particular fellow (I have already forgotten his name) would learn to be a retail politician and then he would become Premier. I took that to mean that he would learn to sell himself to the voters without really committing to anything, so that he could later do what was good for his party and his supporters and his donors and his bureaucracy. I have lived with retail politicians for most of my life.

I always find it interesting (and infuriating) when government consults with us, and then ignores the results of the consultation. Sunday shopping was a big issue a dozen years ago, and the government of Premier MacDonald asked the voters what they thought. The results were about 53% opposed to Sunday shopping, 47% in favour. But Premier MacDonald would not stand up to the big retailers, so we got Sunday shopping. Notice that government offices did not open on Sunday.

On Inequality: Government Spending

Most days I walk 10,000 steps along my paved rural road. Sometimes it's for my heart, sometimes it's to turn off my brain, and sometimes it's just to fill time. In spring it's to listen to the birds, and in fall it can be to watch the leaves turn. But the walk always reminds me, in a small way, of the basic inequality that defines government in Nova Scotia. My road, despite being a busy thoroughfare, is so badly maintained that cars have to drive on the shoulder to avoid the potholes in the centre, and elsewhere squeeze to the centre to avoid the rough edges where the pavement has been peeled away by the snowplows. My road is in Cumberland South, formerly represented by PC MLA Jamie Baillie. And everyone on my road understands the basic reality in 2018: no good thing happens in an opposition-held riding, and no bad thing happens in a government-held riding. Our curse is even worse, because Cumberland South has been held by the Tories in every session of the legislature that I can remember, except for a brief period in the 1980's when Cumberland Centre was divided between the other two ridings and their incumbent, Liberal Guy Brown held the seat until he retired.

The sad reality of our unswerving political loyalty is that the Liberals and the NDP, in government, will never spend money in Cumberland South because there are no votes for them here. And the Tories, in government, will not spend money here because they don't have to - they will get our votes anyway.  Were we in Britain in the 1830's we would have been called a pocket borough. If you missed that in Civics class back when they taught Civics, you can find an entertaining essay on Wikipedia.

Lake Road April 2017