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How to Curb B.C.'s High Risk Hunger for Energy

Spreading pipelines, vulnerable to sabotage, fuel our growing appetite.

Alan Durning 18 Apr

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Last year, one of the most surprising findings of a new regional index of progress called the Cascadia Scorecard was that -- of seven key trends -- British Columbia and the rest of the Pacific Northwest scored most poorly on energy efficiency.

Yes, despite Cascadians’ interest in renewable energy, clean energy, and hybrid cars, the average northwesterner consumes nearly as much highway fuels and nonindustrial electricity as a Texan. British Columbians are more energy efficient than folks from Washington, Oregon, or Idaho, but still consume relatively high levels of energy -- almost 50 percent more per person than Germans.

This year’s edition of the Cascadia Scorecard, released last month, confirmed the region’s poor performance on energy and added a surprise twist to the story -- as well as some good news.

Vulnerable to attack

The surprise is that not only does the region’s energy consumption remain high—despite high gas prices, British Columbians’ per-person energy use actually increased in 2004 -- but the region’s energy system is also highly insecure on an infrastructure level. Cacadia’s pipelines and powerlines are highly vulnerable to sabotage that, if realized, could seriously disrupt the regional economy.

British Columbia, for example, gets most of its oil from Alberta through the Trans-Mountain Pipeline, which crosses hundreds of miles of hinterlands before reaching the lower Fraser Valley. Like similar pipelines, the Trans-Mountain is almost impossible to secure against determined attackers. The region’s five natural gas pipelines are more explosive than oil pipelines, and—unlike oil—gas has no alternative mode of transport.

The good news is that there is a solution that pays for itself -- a clean-energy revolution that promises to make BC’s energy system secure, efficient, and more profitable. Strategies such as clean-car standards and innovative incentives for energy efficiency can bombproof the Pacific Northwest’s energy system, generate thousands of jobs, and help the region improve its “score” in energy efficiency.

Clean car ‘feebates’

In transportation, one of the most promising strategies is “clean cars,” the super-efficient, advanced-technology vehicles that British Columbia will get if Ottawa honors its Kyoto pledge and demands steep cuts in new-vehicle emissions. Clean cars are like a decentralized petroleum reserve. Their fuel tanks and those at filling stations hold several weeks’ supply -- a security buffer, should pipelines stop flowing.

The Canadian government and the big automakers recently signed an agreement to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from new vehicles. With Canada firmly on board for clean-car standards, as well as seven states in the US, the auto industry will have a much greater incentive to design more fuel-efficient cars.

On the consumer side, the drive toward clean cars would be accelerated by a powerful efficiency incentive called feebates, which is getting traction in Canada. The basic idea is elegant in its simplicity: In the case of vehicles, cars that are more efficient than average come to the showroom carrying a rebate for their buyers. Those rebates are proportional to the efficiency of the vehicle, so superefficient vehicles come with whopping big rebates.

Conversely, cars and trucks that are less efficient than average, come with a fee -- a fee that grows with the vehicle’s inefficiency. The fees pay for the rebates each year, so it’s revenue neutral. Even better, feebates would have a “snowball” effect on efficiency because they are designed to continuously tug the entire car and truck market toward better fuel efficiency.

Correcting a market flaw

Economists like feebates because they correct a market flaw by making purchase prices a better reflection of the real costs of energy-inefficient products. Environmentalists like feebates because they put prices in line with Canada’s Kyoto commitment. Ottawa is considering implementing vehicle feebates as part of its 2005 budget, but they could be used for any energy-using product.

Similar energy savings are readily available not only in transportation, but also in buildings and industry. Energy efficiency can save energy less expensively than new sources can provide it, as BC Hydro’s ambitious PowerSmart plans make clear.

Investment in renewable energy can also add dramatically to the province’s energy security by diversifying and decentralizing energy sources. Western Canada is already benefiting economically from an emerging base of businesses that specializes in energy efficiency and renewables, green buildings, and alternative fuels. Ballard Power Systems of Burnaby leads the world in hydrogen fuel cells, which have potential for both transportation and distributed power generation.

A new ethanol

Another quick-maturing technology, which Canadian firm Iogen is pioneering, is cellulose ethanol, a fuel made from crop and forest residues and urban wastes that could be locally produced in rural British Columbia. Other areas with potential are passive-solar design, highly efficient woodstoves in nonmetro areas, and windpower.

Saving oil and natural gas through efficiency gains and investment in renewables would also generate profit by allowing BC to import less oil from Alberta and to export more of the natural gas it already extracts. All told, the province’s economy stands to gain up to a maximum of $10 million a day: up to $5 million by not importing as much oil and another $5 million by increasing exports of gas. Instead, the money will circulate locally, creating jobs and supporting BC businesses.

Such changes won’t appear magically. They will require leadership and the embrace of innovative new incentives detailed in Cascadia Scorecard 2005. But the payoff will be enormous: British Columbians keep home more of their energy money. They get an energy system that’s less vulnerable to sabotage. And future editions of the Cascadia Scorecard may start by lauding the region’s energy efficiency -- instead of lamenting its low score.

[Tomorrow: How BC sustainability stacks up against U.S. Northwest on health, economy, population, sprawl, forests, pollution and energy.]

Alan Durning is executive director of Northwest Environment Watch. The Cascadia Scorecard, launched in 2004, monitors seven key trends critical to the future of the Northwest, including health, economy, population, energy, sprawl, forests, and pollution. See sidebar, “Keeping Score,” for more information on the province performed in these trends. And for regular updates on the Scorecard, click to subscribe here.  [Tyee]

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