Market News

 May 27, 2013
Worry less about how energy is produced, more about how it's wasted

For people who are serious about greenhouse gas reduction, their focus should be less on who's supplying energy or how it's produced, and more on who's wasting it.

This latter group includes everybody --- especially Canadians, who are among the most profligate energy users on the planet.

That's the thesis of Michael Clelland, a consultant and executive-in-residence of the Canada West Foundation, who has held senior energy-related positions in both the private and public sectors. He spoke last week at Simon Fraser University, delivering the first of four lectures in a 40th Anniversary series sponsored by Max Bell Foundation in partnership with the Literary Review of Canada.

Clelland's approach is more academic than populist, and his presentation was rife with dense graphs and data. But his complex explanations tell a simple story.

Consider the example of a consumer who flicks a switch to turn on a light bulb powered by electricity generated by natural gas. The energy that makes the bulb glow, his charts reveal, is just one-25th of what could have been extracted from the gas used to produce it. The rest was lost getting this energy from the well to the fixture.

Even if our bulbs glow thanks to electrons from a greener source --- say B.C.'s hydro dams --- this power could have been used to displace inefficient power somewhere else if you and I hadn't used it all up.

But Clelland isn't talking about merely switching to light bulbs that consume a little less --- though he wouldn't argue that's a bad idea. Rather, his goal is better systems --- redesigning everything up to and including whole communities to forestall waste and huge losses in getting energy from where it's produced to where it's used.

The potential savings are immense, given that less than half the energy that enters the economy is productively used. Most of the rest is lost in waste heat --- and this in a climate where more than half of the energy we usefully harness is used to generate heat for our buildings or our water.

Not all of that waste heat could ever be economically recovered, he said, but a substantial amount can be. And if only 20 per cent were recycled productively, it could warm every commercial and institutional building in the land.

Yet policy-makers, activists and virtually everybody else involved in the energy debate remain resolutely focused on the supply side of the equation. For those who consider the environment trump, the emphasis is on things like wind, solar and biofuels. For those whose priority is economic development or energy security, the issues are oilsands, natural gas and export pipelines.

Intelligent, large-scale conservation measures can address all of these issues, he said --- none more effectively than the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And he likens the current focus on production methods as looking at the problem from the wrong end of a telescope.

This too often results in solutions that produce "green" energy at substantially greater cost than conventional sources, he said.

"Most policy-makers know, or eventually discover, that affordable cost most often trumps environment," he wrote in a companion piece to the lecture that was published by the Literary Review.

"Security often trumps both." he added.

And, "The lure of economic development usually pushes environment even further to the bottom of the priority list."