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Environmental commissioner sheds light on conservation challenges

Environmental commissioner sheds light on conservation challenges

“It ain’t easy being green,” as Kermit the Frog has pointed out. So one might expect that Gord Miller, Ontario’s environmental commissioner, would have his work cut out for him overseeing and critiquing the environmental performance of 14 Ontario ministries. In a recent visit to York University, however, Miller showed he can serve as a watchdog of the government while balancing a sense of optimism.

The commissioner visited the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) on Dec. 2 to speak with students about energy conservation initiatives and to present his newly published report, Engaging Solutions. The report, submitted annually to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, was released only days before Miller’s visit to students in Fundamentals of Energy Efficiency, a fourth-year environmental studies class connected to the FES Sustainable Energy Initiative. In his visit, Miller shared a number of ideas on how government agencies, regulators, companies and the government could strengthen and support energy conservation.

Right: Gord Miller discusses strategies for the future of energy in Ontario with students in the Faculty of Environmental Studies

In his presentation, Miller noted that Ontario’s Smart Grid program “has not been well communicated to the public, and thus it is not understood.”

The Ontario Ministry of Energy describes the Smart Grid system as an “intelligent electricity infrastructure” using sensors, monitors, communications, automation and computers to “improve the flexibility, reliability and efficiency of the electricity system.” The Ministry website states the program will allow utilities to identify and repair outages more quickly, enable consumers to better manage and monitor their electricity usage and allow more renewable electricity generation, such as wind and solar power, to connect to the electricity grid. The switch to a Smart Grid, however, will require a series of integrated initiatives over a number of years.

Left: Gord Miller

Because of this, the program received criticism in the October 2011 provincial election, along with public resistance to the need for new meters to be installed on all homes and businesses. But Miller said, “People who are resistant to change, they state and retell a narrative to convince themselves and others of their case. You have to change that narrative and accumulate case studies where meters did not have an adverse effect.”

In addition, Miller identified another vital concern: “the absence of leadership at the systems level means there is not one single organization with an overall perspective who will ensure that this program succeeds.” Still he was optimistic, saying, “Energy conservation starts with smart metering, [which will allow us to] find out the waste in transmission in the system.”

Another conservation initiative that has had considerable criticism, said Miller, is Time-of-Use (TOU) electricity pricing. TOU pricing breaks down electrical consumption into demand-based categories: on-peak (time of day when electrical demand is highest), mid-peak (demand is moderate) and off-peak (demand is lowest). Consumers pay higher rates for electricity consumed during higher demand periods. According to the Ontario Energy Board, the TOU plan was developed “to provide stable and predictable electricity pricing, which ensures the price consumers pay for electricity better reflects the actual cost of producing the electricity.”

Right: Several students parted the event with expanded minds as well as pockets, having received USB keys from the commissioner

Miller thinks the negative media and public response towards the plan was overblown. “TOU pricing was viewed as a ‘tax’,” he said, as if to suggest that “old people would have to do laundry in the middle of the night.” He said peak demand determines the amount of energy which power plants must generate. He further suggested that if Ontarians could lower their peak consumption, fewer power plants would be required in the future, having a direct environmental impact.

Miller, excited about his upcoming climate change report, also spoke about transportation, road pricing and electric vehicles. He promised this report would include further analysis of greenhouse gas emissions, along with a necessary update on the science of climate change.

“Last year’s report was very critical of the government's actions [on climate change]. Since then, the programs have fallen apart,” he said, adding that Ontario won't be able to meet its current conservation targets. But he said, “If there’s a concerted, sincere effort, I won’t judge everything negatively.”

Miller feels it is his job “to address the white elephants in the room,” tackling difficult subjects and getting closer to solutions in energy conservation. In sharing his insight and optimism with York’s environmental students, Miller says he hopes to strengthen the future in preserving Ontario’s environment.

Submitted by Imelda Nurwisah, FES communications graduate assistant

Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.