RD Editorial October 2017

Scarcity and abundance

    Until recently, our old farmhouse ran on a 60-amp service. It was likely the original wiring, because this road wasn’t connected to the grid until 1949. Funny to think that Elvis was already plinking away on a guitar, Miles Davis was blowing his horn in Paris, but farms around here had no electricity. By that time a young lawyer named Pierre Trudeau had taken a job in Ottawa working for Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent. It was the nuclear age, yet the people on this road relied on kerosene lighting. 
    Our neighbour Muriel Slauenwhite remembers the linesmen hooking up houses that October. “It was on a Saturday. They worked on Saturdays then,” she tells me. “Mind you, the men of the community dug most of the postholes to set the poles. Oh, it was great to have power.”
    Our home’s old electrical service – which wasn’t really very old – served our purposes quite adequately. When we moved here 20 years ago, we replaced the hulking 1970s refrigerator with a high-efficiency apartment-size model, and installed a propane cookstove to replace the electric range – so we were probably using less juice than previous occupants. But last year, when we needed some wiring done as part of a renovation project, our electrician punched some numbers into his calculator and informed us he couldn’t touch the job – couldn’t install so much as a light switch – unless we upgraded to a bigger service.
    This was going to be expensive and, as doctors say, invasive. But there’s a certain nobility that comes with upgrading one’s wiring, and we decided to go for it. And since it would only cost a few bucks more, we agreed to upgrade not just to the standard 100 amps, but to 200 amps. The more amps the merrier! We had toyed with the idea of a farm-based business, so we leapfrogged from light-duty domestic to semi-industrial. 
    Oh, it’s great to have power! And apparently acquiring more power is greater still. You’ll never need it, but it’s nice to have it. Isn’t that the enduring legacy of the nuclear era? 
    If power corrupts, we’re now hard-wired for spiritual ruin. Seems a bit like the congratulatory notifications we get from credit card companies, telling us our sterling reputation for maintaining debt has earned us a still-higher monthly limit. Who needs that much credit? Gambling addicts, I guess. And I guess that includes all of us.
    “You’re richer than you think,” says the Bank of Nova Scotia. It’s an aphorism urging gratitude, but it was appropriated by the huge financial institution for the purpose of urging profligate borrowing and spending. This advertising campaign is so distasteful that it sparked a public backlash, especially in the recession of 2008-2009. But the bank toughed it out – and through the wonders of marketing, the cynicism of that tagline was washed away, replaced with warm sentiment. This exercise in corporate branding appears to have worked, because Scotiabank cleared better than $7 billion last year. Brian Potter, the bank’s CEO, is likely richer than you think, having pulled down a bit over $10 million in 2016, including stock options and “incentives” (because a mere $1 million base salary isn’t much of an incentive to do one’s job, in the upper echelons of finance).
    While we were in the throes of electrical excess, I asked if we could get wired for net metering, so that once our credit had been nursed back to health we might eventually be able to bolt a few photovoltaic panels to the roof and generate some of our own power. The old meter and panel had to be replaced anyways, and we were going to be paying fees to disconnect and reconnect the service, so why not get a bi-directional meter and a solar-ready panel? But no. Turns out that’s not the way it works. Nova Scotia Power has an application process for net metering, and you have to spec the whole project in advance. So now we have a huge new breaker panel (containing many empty slots to accommodate undreamed-of appliances), but it’s still 20th-century technology. 
    It’s not surprising that a private utility company would be lukewarm about helping its customers generate power. Instead, what Nova Scotia Power zealously promotes is the Heat Pump Revolution. Their advertising tagline is, “Heat pumps set you free,” but heap pumps actually tether you to the power grid. Air-source heat pumps are sometimes mistakenly lumped in with renewable energy, but really they’re just electrical appliances (the 20th-century type, with bearings guaranteed to wear out). It’s true that they produce heat much more efficiently than radiant electric units, but they are also used for air conditioning, which means that a growing number of homes in Nova Scotia – where air conditioning is rarely necessary – are running them all through the summer. From the utility’s perspective, it’s a great way to keep the meters turning on the demand side.
    One has to wonder if the right incentives are in place to bring more solar power on stream. Chris Huskilson received $5 million in compensation last year as CEO of Emera (parent company to Nova Scotia Power, and also to utilities in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Maine, and Florida). He likely has other priorities – including headaches lingering from recent hurricane damage to the Tampa Electric grid. (On December 11 the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board is holding a public hearing to address a recent third-party audit that raised questions about whether NSP’s familial relationship with Emera is compromising the interests of power consumers in the province.)
    In the season of Thanksgiving – yes, that’s where I’m going with this – we reflect on abundance, which means we also reflect on scarcity. There’s not much money to be made on free resources like sunshine. Big profits arise where there is limited supply or restricted access. 
    A friend who works in the film business recently told me about a shark fin dealer in Japan who was asked how he will react if the sharks are driven to extinction; the dealer replied that he was looking forward to this eventuality, because he has stockpiled a great many fins, and their market value will increase immensely. This logic is also at play in the oil industry. Demand begets demand. We also see the role of status and superstition in the market for rhino horns and bear gallbladders (the latter still legal in Nova Scotia). You can pay $50 for a cup of coffee made from super-scarce beans that have been excreted by an elephant before being roasted. (What price would the market bear for flax seeds that had passed through Gwyneth Paltrow?)
    Canadians like to trot out the story of Champlain’s 1606 “Order of Good Cheer” being the original Thanksgiving, predating the Pilgrims’ first autumn feast by 15 years. But apparently Sir Martin Frobisher and his crew had a go at it in 1578 – and of course, First Nations peoples had engaged in harvest celebrations for millennia. I’m told many Quebecers view this holiday as a corny Anglo thing, but the French term for it, Action de Grâce, sounds suitably imperative. 
    Those of us who are not succumbing to scurvy, and whose homes have not been destroyed by hurricanes – or by monsoons, which have killed more than 1,200 people in South Asia this year – should certainly be grateful. And if we have the power, perhaps we should do more.  DL