TORONTO -- The struggle by Phyllis Morris for the right to hang her wet laundry on a backyard clothesline may be an apt metaphor for the Ontario government's crusade for electricity conservation.
Ms. Morris lives in a subdivision in Aurora, north of Toronto, where drying clothes on a line is prohibited by the developer because of fears that it looks, well, cheap. As the town's mayor, she has been pressing Queen's Park to override the restrictive covenants that are part of thousands of house purchase and sale agreements and keep people chained to their clothes dryers.
The government has had the power to do this at the stroke of a pen since early 2006 but it hasn't done so despite its oft-repeated commitment to conservation as an environmental and economic necessity. Asked about the clotheslines issue recently, all Premier Dalton McGuinty would say is "we're going to be finding a way to speak to that."
The inaction has perplexed Ms. Morris. "It's such a simple thing," she said. "At this point, the public are getting ahead of the government."
The government's record isn't as bleak as this, of course. It has enacted a range of initiatives - everything from a two-tier pricing structure to a roundup of beer fridges - as it attempts to reduce Ontario's electricity use in the next 18 years by about one-quarter of its current consumption level. It claims it is making a good start but this is controversial.
The assertion by Peter Love, the province's chief energy conservation officer, that energy consumption fell in the first six months of this year by 3.3 per cent over 2005 (after adjusting for weather) is disputed by an analyst for a major energy-industry firm, who puts the figure at 1.8 per cent. In fact, data from the Independent Electricity System Operator show demand has risen marginally - from 125.9 terrawatt-hours in the first 10 months of 2006 to 126.4 in the same period this year.
Yes, population has grown but a big chunk of the manufacturing sector - particularly the energy-hungry forestry industry - has collapsed so claims of a conservation breakthrough should be treated cautiously.
The record so far has not impressed Chris Winter, executive director of the Conservation Council of Ontario, who sees no sign yet of a culture of conservation. "We're still scratching the surface," he said. Mark Winfield of the Pembina Institute sees "an implementation gap" between talk and action.
This mixed record was put in the spotlight recently by Mr. Love's annual report. In a very polite way, he told the government that all its various efforts to cut electricity use haven't been enough.
He challenged the new Energy Minister, Gerry Phillips, to develop "a comprehensive and cohesive" conservation policy that would apply to all government ministries. In addition, he asked that his role be expanded to overseeing conservation of natural gas and transportation fuels. (And, yes, he recommended regulations to override restrictions concerning clotheslines, solar panels and other backyard heat-and-power projects.)
To environmentalist Keith Stewart of WWF-Canada, the Love report is "brilliant" because it offers the government a road map that it had better follow.
"If the last mandate was about cleaning up the mess in the electricity sector, then this one really needs to be about putting some real political and financial muscle behind building the culture of conservation," he said.
Mr. Phillips should consider detaching Mr. Love from the Ontario Power Authority. He hasn't asked for this but the OPA's focus is on electricity and its commitment to conservation is open to question. He might be better off on his own.
Meanwhile, about those clotheslines ...
Campbell, Murray. "Clothesline flap exposes talk-action gap.(Column)(QUEEN'S PARK: ENERGY CONSERVATION)." Globe & Mail [Toronto, Canada] 17 Nov. 2007: A12. Popular Magazines. Web. 17 Dec. 2009.
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