HELGA GUDERLEY: We’re burning our forests to fatten NSP profits


•Guest Opinion

Dr. Helga Guderley has a PhD in zoology from UBC and is a board member of the Ecology Action Centre. She lives in Boutiliers Point.

We live in unusual times. The pandemic that massively changed our lives is receding. But since February, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has brought war to Europe. Both COVID and the Russian invasion mobilized the West.

The dangers of climate change have not been elicited as a unified response. Again, this year, its devastating impacts are all too apparent: between the prolonged drought and heat waves in Europe and North America and the massive flooding in Pakistan. Perhaps because climate changes on a time scale longer than election cycles, we are not responding to the reality that climate change will completely destroy life as we know it. We are good at making targets for reducing our carbon footprint, but terrible at meeting them.

A prime example is Nova Scotia’s power grid and its use of biomass.

Nova Scotia has historically relied upon coal to generate electrical power. Getting off coal and fossil fuels is our major climate goal. Major initiatives such as the Muskrat Falls hydro system and the Maritime link are meant to wean us off fossil fuels. Unfortunately, burning biomass for power generation has been our panacea. When power from Muskrat Falls was slow in coming, we added biomass. When fuel costs soar, thanks to Putin’s war, we burn more biomass. To keep power rates low, we burn more biomass. When we needed to keep the forest industry happy after Northern Pulp closed, we obliged Nova Scotia Power to burn more biomass.

Biomass is not a panacea. Burning trees releases carbon, just like burning coal and oil. Proponents of biomass use argue that millennia are needed to form coal and oil but trees grow back. The MASSIVE error in this argument is that the decades needed for trees to grow back far exceed the time we have to turn around our climate crisis. Burning biomass to generate electricity produces more CO2 per kW produced than burning fossil fuels. Added injury comes from the devastation wrought upon the land: as much carbon is released from the soil of clearcut forests as by burning the trees.

When the use of biomass is promoted, typically sawmill wastes or low-grade wood are mentioned. While this sounds harmless, it is the beginning of a slippery slope. Once a generating system is built, its appetite is whetted and biomass harvests must satisfy this appetite. The wholesale destruction of forests and the elimination of multi-species mixed forests in favor of even-aged monocultures of spruce and fir are consequences of this biomass and chip industry. Our land’s capacity for carbon sequestration is massively diminished by biomass harvesting.

Nova Scotia Power has recently asked for further rate increases. OK, maintaining an effective electrical grid is complicated. A strong grid is crucial for the introduction of “clean” means of power generation, such as hydro, wind and solar. NSP, while a private company, provides an essential public service. Its major role is to provide energy security. But, as NDP leader Claudia Chender recently said: “Nova Scotia Power has the highest rates among integrated Canadian utilities and yet the grid is among the most unreliable and the power among the dirtiest.”

The regulations that govern NSP’s rates are complex and far from transparent. Some aspects are historical and should be open to negotiation. Why should the company and its shareholders be guaranteed a profit (on average 9 per cent) while Nova Scotian ratepayers are faced with rate hikes of 11 per cent or more? Why should the utility be “forgiven” the levy on excess greenhouse gas production that was supposed to support carbon offsets? Why should homeowners willing to invest in photovoltaic systems be limited in the capacity of their installation? Why should the top administrators of NSPs have salaries that rose from $1 million in 2012 to over $8 million in 2021? NSP claims of “aggressive cost management” are hardly apparent as it seeks to increase its profit margin and maintain absurdly high executive salaries.

Why should we be burning biomass and devastating our forests to maintain NSP profits and salaries?

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