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We are citizens–not just consumers

June 25th, 2014 · No Comments

How to encourage reduced consumption of electricity

One of the best methods of learning about yourself is for sure to travel.

Given the intense carbon footprint of flying, air travel for me is restricted for work (for either myself or my partner, and the other sometimes goes along), or infrequent family gatherings.

This year’s only flight took place recently to Cuba where my partner does research with the University of Havana. The great thing about being away from the tourist beaches is that I get to spend a lot of time with locals learning about their culture.

I made a discovery about their electricity grid worth sharing and learning from.

I’ve been an advocate for higher electricity prices for a long time now.

I also realize this is pure political suicide—electricity pricing to reflect the true cost is a mere fantasy for those who don’t like downloading the cost of our lifestyle to our kids.

Increasing costs to decrease consumption also disproportionately affects lower income families. It seems Cuba might have an answer for us.

Relying on oil imports is a very expensive way to generate electricity, so in addition to the new solar farms, Cuba relies heavily on discouraging flippant consumption while making sure baseline needs are affordably met.

Before the much talked about Time of Use pricing strategy, Ontario had tiered pricing. For about 10 per cent of consumers, it still does. The first 600kwh are charged at 8.6 cents while anything above that is charged at 10.1 cents—hardly enough difference to worry about.

Contrast that to Havana’s electricity pricing starting at 9 Cuban cents per kwh from 0-100 kwh to 5 pesos for anything over 5,000 kwh with 9 tiers in between.

The increase in price is gradual in the lower brackets and increases exponentially in the upper ones.

One of the grad students spoke about keeping his electricity bill around 50 cents (Cdn), while another, a lover of air conditioning, forks out the equivalent of $12 Cdn each month. (Though this seems insignificant, I should probably mention that most Cubans earn a base salary that ranges from $20 to $30 each month.)

Given the necessity of electricity and the incredible cost to society to generate and distribute it (not to mention long-term health and climate considerations), it makes sense to have pricing increase as hogs use more power. Rather than a blanket rate increase that will hit low income families hard, aggressive tiered pricing allows basic needs to be met while luxuries (such as endless electronic devices, air conditioning, and big screen TVs) will be appropriately priced to operate. As much as I love my neighbours in the Annex, the constant hum of air conditioners on cool nights makes me wish we had a better mechanism to encourage people to open windows and turn those things off!

Although tiered pricing won’t do anything to change when electricity is used, a University of Waterloo study shows that our mere pennies price differential on our Time of Use scheme doesn’t either.

As Ontario’s electricity infrastructure faces the dual challenges of age and of reaching its capacity, I hope citizens like us will take a more conciliatory approach towards fixing it.

It’s no longer good enough to just keep generating stations out of our backyards, we have to put forth and accept solutions that might cost us more because at some point, something has to give.

We can no longer simply accept hollow promises of lower electricity prices without answering the question of how the new infrastructure will be paid for.

We are citizens, not just consumers. It’s time we acted accordingly when it comes to our electricity grid.

Terri Chu is an engineer committed to practical environmentalism. This column is dedicated to helping the community reduce energy use, and help distinguish environmental truths from myths. Send comments to Terri at terri. chu@whyshouldicare.ca.

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