Energy self-sufficiency for New Brunswick, Part One: a culture of efficiency

Published Tuesday, July 21, 2015 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

If you were given the task of making NB completely self-sufficient in energy, where would you start and how would you go about it?  Here are a few ideas.

Context

There are plenty of reasons why energy self-sufficiency is a valid and worthy goal.  

First, much of our energy today comes from oil, coal and natural gas, which generate greenhouse gas emissions.  With the onset of climate change, it’s clear that humans need to stop burning fossil fuels.  As a first-world country, Canada is responsible for more than its share of emissions, so that suggests a moral obligation to be a leader in solutions too.

Secondly, our importation of fossil fuel is an enormous drain on our provincial economy.  How many two-by-fours, lobsters, French fries or fish; how much potash or newsprint do we need to export to recover the hundreds of millions of dollars we annually send abroad for oil, coal and natural gas?  Imagine the things we could do if we could spend all that money locally instead.

Finally, there’s a renewable energy boom happening around the world.  Incredible as it may seem, the clean energy sector now provides more jobs in Canada than the oil sands – a fact fossil fuel interests aren’t especially happy to acknowledge or share.  Globally, investment in renewable electricity has exceeded investment in new fossil fuel power plants since 2010.  It’s high time New Brunswickers got our share of this new green economy. 

To be fair, 100 per cent energy self sufficiency is a very lofty goal, and reaching absolute self sufficiency will take a while.  But the tree of solutions before us is loaded with large fruit and low hanging fruit; as the easy pickings, they’re where we should focus our efforts first. 

Step one: a culture of efficiency

Perhaps the biggest, lowest fruit on the tree of solutions is efficiency, getting more out of every unit of energy we use.  We’re lucky to live in a very prosperous part of the world, but our prosperity has bred a culture of wastefulness.  Getting to energy self-sufficiency will require “eliminating the concept of waste”, to quote Cradle to Cradle authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

Efficiency, resourcefulness and waste reduction need to become part of our culture and fibre, embedded into every policy, program, project and person.  It’s a well-worn cliché, but the cheapest liter of gas or kilowatt-hour of electricity is the one we don’t use.  (That also applies to water and just about everything else we consume.)  

A culture of efficiency has the potential to take NB far down the road toward energy self-sufficiency.

For example, the growing number of net-zero (IE energy self-sufficient), near net-zero and off-grid homes in NB proves that we have all the technology we need; the big missing piece is a cultural shift in both buyers and builders.  Several decades ago, NB was a national leader in efficient home construction; why not again?  In terms of costs, efficiency is a small added investment that pays back huge dividends in the future.  High efficiency standards have recently been embedded into building codes and that’s great, but our true goal should be homes that require zero energy and have no energy bills.  (Making energy efficiency reports a mandatory part of home sales would help bring about a culture of efficiency too; that’s already required in some countries.)

A culture of efficiency could put a huge dent in our transportation costs and carbon footprint too.  Imagine if we all made vehicle choices based on what we really needed instead of what we wanted.  Goodbye SUVs, trucks and hundred dollar fill-ups; hello comfortable, affordable and wallet-friendly compacts and hybrids.  

Greater efficiency is just the first part of the journey to energy self sufficiency; we’ll look beyond to other strategies next time.