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Can little steps have a big enough impact on energy conservation?

Air drying her laundry helped Denise McGeachy in the early years of the Power Smart program to cut power usage by more than 10 per cent.

CHAD HIPOLITO PHOTOS/The Globe and Mail

Denise McGeachy signed up for a BC Hydro conservation challenge in 2009 to cut her monthly household costs. "Little steps add up to huge impact," the utility promised.

Now her family of four, including two teenaged boys, have changed habits. They unplug the toaster when it is not in use, most of their laundry is air-dried, and the electric baseboard heaters get minimal use with the aid of a programmable thermostat.

After the first year, the family was rewarded with a $75 Power Smart rebate for meeting the challenge to reduce electricity by 10 per cent. After that, she said, "we hit a wall."

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Despite continued efforts, they have never reached that target again. Ms. McGeachy ruefully noted this week they are using almost as much power as they did before they started.

So, it seems, is everyone else in the province, despite 14 years of BC Hydro's aggressively promoted conservation programs. Since the McGeachys signed up for the Power Smart program, BC Hydro has spent $689-million encouraging British Columbians to curb their electricity habits.

It is an attractive notion: If people change their wasteful ways with "little steps," the province would not need costly and environmentally damaging new hydroelectric projects.

But the average household is still using about the same amount of electricity as in 1989. People embraced more efficient light bulbs and refrigerators, but have more electronic gadgets.

This week, an environmental review panel made recommendations to government on whether BC Hydro should be allowed to build the $8-billion Site C dam, a report that will be made public next week. Compared with conservation, Site C is a relatively small part of the Crown-owned utility's answer to B.C.'s ever-increasing demand for power.

Without conservation, demand is forecast to increase by 40 per cent over the next 10 years. Hydro proposes to supply that using energy from Site C, which would come online by 2024 and generate 5,100 gigawatt hours of energy each year. But first, Hydro intends to find ways to reduce growth in demand by 78 per cent.

"This is an aggressive target by any measure," BC Hydro's final submission to the Site C environmental review panel states, a target "that requires all individuals, businesses and industry to make significant changes to their current energy use."

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Energy Minister Bill Bennett says he is confident BC Hydro's targets will be met without tough new measures.

"They have looked me in the eye and said, 'We can meet that goal of 78 per cent.' I expect them to achieve that goal."

He says British Columbians are changing their behaviour. His own home is heated without fossil fuels or electricity: "I burn firewood in an $11,000 fireplace to heat my home. I cut and split my wood."

But energy policy expert Mark Jaccard, a former chair of the province's utilities regulator, argues that when it comes to energy savings targets, "wishful thinking trumps evidence," he said in an e-mail. "Telling someone they can save our world and make money is a lot easier than telling them what this will cost them."

Dr. Jaccard said the evidence suggests conservation is cheaper than new conventional generation of power. But it is not clear how much cheaper. Power Smart has had little outside financial scrutiny, particularly since the provincial government blocked rate reviews by the independent regulator, the B.C. Utilities Commission.

Hydro officials say the program is a success. More than 75,000 households have completed the Team Power Smart challenge, and most achieved reductions. Only one-third cut their consumption by 10 per cent. In the years ahead, BC Hydro will increasingly seek energy savings through changes to rate structures, such as charging more for consumption over designated levels, and regulation such as building code standards.

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Dr. Jaccard says those alternatives are more effective, but more difficult to sell. Raising hydro rates is a sure way to change behaviour, but it is not an easy option for any government, particularly the B.C. Liberals, who campaigned on a commitment to reduce taxes on families.

Mr. Bennett acknowledged sterner measures may be needed. "You have to bear in mind that electricity is relatively cheap in British Columbia. It is part of the problem."

Rates will rise by 28 per cent over the next five years, still relatively low by North American standards.

That will mean the B.C. Utilities Commission may have to make some tough decisions about rates, but Mr. Bennett is not about to step into that debate. "Policy makers will have to decide whether it is worth taking a more intrusive, more aggressive approach, but right now, Hydro is achieving significant conservation goals by using incentives and some education," he said. "It's actually working."

Ms. McGeachy says she is not sure what other significant changes she can make. She has enjoyed the incentives, but thinks it would take a major rate hike to prompt any more sacrifices.

"I like Power Smart, I'm on board, but I don't think the incentives are enough. They need the stick, not the carrot."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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