So what is green energy, anyway? We know that coal is out, and many in the green camp reject nuclear as well – but with the push to shut down Ontario’s dirty coal-fired generating stations, controversy around other renewable sources is intensifying. In a climate of polemic and rhetoric, Trent students organized a panel discussion on renewable energy to offer an educational corrective to this often heated debate.
Almost 50 people, mainly Trent students, crowded into the Lady Eaton College Pit one February evening, to hear panel experts speak in practical terms about the mechanics of green energy – from licensing through to production and delivery – from a variety of different perspectives and representing a variety of different renewable energy technologies.
“Our goal was to provide students with an opportunity to hear about the practical aspects [of energy production],” said Jessica Vuong, cabinet minister of Sustainability for Lady Eaton College and co-organizer of the panel. “On a practical and on a policy level there is a lot that you should learn before getting behind or writing off a particular technology. A lot of discussion on this topic focuses on ethics, and on who’s the bad guy but there’s so much more to the issue than that.”
Ms. Vuong and fellow organizer Hilary Krygsman Osborne, Lady Eaton College cabinet’s Minister of Education, collaborated on the event as a function of their cabinet responsibilities, but also as an offshoot of their personal interests and passions, Ms. Vuong having become interested in water rights in high school, and Ms. Krygsman Osborne having worked this past summer as an intern at the Ontario Waterpower Association as marketing and communications assistant.
Chris Ferguson, Trent alumnus and co-owner of a local biogas company joined the debate. When he cited the results of his own study, suggesting that it would take just 9-11% of Canadian farmland to produce enough biogas to meet the country’s energy needs, the audience was visibly impressed. Realistically, however, Mr. Ferguson admitted that the high-cost of the technology and its novelty made rapid implementation in Canada impossible. “Biogas is just so technical compared to, say, solar or wind. Right now, you have to butt heads with all different levels of approval because they’re just not familiar with the technology. So it’s not a very efficient process ...”
Fiscal and regulatory impediments aside, social resistance to renewable energy technologies can work against those striving to clean up Ontario’s energy act, with one of the more vocal movements being rural resistance to wind turbines. “Wind energy development is creating a rural social movement,” observed Trent graduate student and panel speaker Adam Greer. “It goes beyond NIMBYism, (Not In My Back Yard.)There are people saying, ‘Turbines are making me sick,’ or ‘Turbines are preventing me from selling my house.’ The proponents of wind energy want a return on investment, but the host communities want a bit of say in the matter and they’re looking for local benefits.”
In spite of a perceived rural-urban split in concerns about renewable energy installations, audience questions - about the disposal of solar panels, the possible use of pesticides to control weeds at solar farms, the potential for wind turbines to cause health problems, and the effects of damming on fish migration - showed that caution when it comes to renewable technologies is not just a rural phenomenon.
So while most of us would agree we want to see greener energy production in the province, it is hard to agree on what that means. “I think if you went around this room people would have different perceptions of green,” observed Paul Norris, president of the Ontario Waterpower Association. “If you started with the idea of carbon, with a focus of preventing climate change, you would probably include nuclear as green. If all you were concerned about were fish, you might take out hydro. It’s a matter of personal perception - all renewable sources are included under the Green Energy Act - water, wind, solar, biogas and biomass.”
Even if we could agree on the most environmentally-friendly means of power generation, greening the provinces’ energy supply is not as simple as replacing one technology with another, argued Mr. Norris pointing to the challenges of energy production for a fluctuating demand. Peak demand, he explained, requires energy ready to be dispatched on a moment’s notice – a feat many energy technologies are unable to accomplish. Likewise, certain technologies such as wind and solar may have the capacity to produce a large amount of energy, but in reality only realize a fraction of that potential because their inputs are so variable. “All electrons aren’t created equally,” concluded Mr. Norris. “It’s not a legitimate proposition to say, ‘We need more wind and less nuclear,’ or, ‘We need more solar and less coal.’ It’s not as simple an argument as that.”