Thursday July 31, 2014

Energy Literacy

Academic study takes a look at Canadians’ knowledge of energy sector
Suncor Energy Photo

Energy and economy expert Michal Moore believes Canadians would benefit from energy education. After all, it is a complex subject. For example, Canada’s energy sector is so diverse that Suncor Energy, well known for its oil sands operations, also produces natural gas and operates wind energy projects such as SunBridge Windpower in Saskatchewan.

Michal Moore wants a Canadian Energy Information Organization.

The professor of energy economics with the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy first publicly argued in favour of the creation of a CEIO similar to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) in the United States in a report that was released by the school last year.

The results of a recent energy literacy study that surveyed Canadians from across the country have done nothing to dissuade him.

“A group like CAPP (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers), which is producing … documents that are useful, quoted by [Statistics Canada] … and people just don’t trust those folks,” said Moore, discussing one of the most fascinating revelations to come out of the study, which is that Canadians seem to distrust the energy sector, its environmentalist detractors and their political leaders equally.

“That was a surprise,” he added. “It was also a surprise for me that the group that did get the most trust turned out to be academe.”

It is a significant bit of knowledge.

After all, the study demonstrated that Canadians hold many energy myths and misconceptions to be true at a time when important decisions need to be made concerning the energy industry in Canada.

“It gave us an idea for how to improve,” said Moore.

“Because we can’t do without the political connections we have,” he added. “We can’t do without the leadership that we already have. And that’s including companies. We have to make use of that.

“What we’re understanding is that we need to change the model and bring in more academic support and independent analysis of what’s being published.”

That is a role that could be played by a CEIO.

“An independent group to look at analytics in Canada,” said Moore.

“We need … an arm’s length [agency] for the public to get onboard with some of the very big decisions that are coming down. That’s a big lesson out of this.”

The work on this study began about two years ago with a single question.

“How aware are people of the role of energy in their lives?” said Moore, who co-authored the report with Jennifer Winter, his colleague at the School of Public Policy, and Andre Turcotte from Carleton University.

The initial answer wasn’t encouraging.

“We didn’t really know how to know that,” Moore continued. “I could talk with any number of people in industry … and the answer was always, ‘Well, people don’t know anything about energy and so that’s all we need to know.’ Which is just not good enough.”

Moore noted that energy is a difficult issue to understand, but also one that inspires a variety of opinions.

“We figured, once we knew what those opinions were or what the knowledge base was, that we could then basically start to devise almost public improvement programs, whether they were magazine articles or videos or [public service announcements] that would improve the connection people had with the energy industry,” said Moore.

“And also with how they control their own energy demands.”

Even the relatively simple question of the source of the energy the respondents use on a regular basis yielded interesting results in terms of knowledge and opinions about energy.

“Most people interpreted the question as where does my electricity come from,” said Moore.

“In the world I live in,” he added, “we tend to divide things into liquid fuels – that’s transportation – and electricity.”

Electricity production in Canada ranges from hydroelectric generation to the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas.

“Nuclear tends to dominate as you get farther east for base load power,” said Moore.

“One of the surprises,” he continued, “was that people in general, in most of the country, had a good idea where their power was coming from if it was based on natural gas or hydro. When it turned out to be based on things like coal or nuclear, they tended to think their power came from something else. They wanted to associate their power sources with something that was cleaner and perceived as being more socially responsible.

“The way we connected that was to look at what people answered and then go back to [Statistics Canada] numbers as far as where generation was coming from in the province. Because even though we don’t know who those individuals were, we know what province they came from. And so we could go back and say, ‘Well, what’s really happening in that province? How close are you?’”

Mostly, British Columbians responded correctly by saying that hydro is their main energy source.

“In Alberta, they didn’t get it as right,” said Moore. “They wanted to imagine that they were using more natural gas than they were. In reality, they use more coal.

“In the Maritimes, where they’re dependent on a lot of tie lines that bring nuclear power as the base load source, they wanted to believe that they were using more renewables – more wind and solar.”

Moore noted that those misconceptions are strongly connected to how Canadians view the relationship between energy production and the environment.

“In other words, the negatives of energy generation,” he said. “And whether or not they were willing to support measures that would either improve environmental quality or avoid the degradation of the environment.

“This ties us into that willingness to pay.”

The energy myths and misconceptions are likely tied to the Canadian energy consumption model where we think energy is always available.

Essentially, if an individual Canadian doesn’t have to wonder if there will be power or not, that person doesn’t need to think about the source of that power.

“The on-demand mode,” said Moore.

“When you walk into a room and you flip a light switch,” he continued, “you expect it to come on, except under extraordinary circumstances. Through most of the world – maybe 70 per cent of the world – they don’t operate on that model. They operate on an as-available model. And they’re very different.

“We tend to take things for granted. And that means that … we expect a fair amount of surplus energy to be running so it will be ready when we are. And it means that the design of the system has a lot of redundancy associated with it.”

Moore noted that much of that infrastructure, such as pipelines and transmission lines, is now over 50 years old and upgrades will have to occur in a manner that doesn’t upset the on-demand consumption model.

“And people are not ready for those kinds of costs,” he said. “They just don’t imagine that they’re going to have to pay those costs.

“They don’t think about it.”

However, according to the study, Canadians seem to be ready to pay extra to minimize the negative environmental impact of energy generation and consumption, although their concept of that impact is fairly vague.

“They associate that very general cost that they pay for energy with environmental damage and they’re willing to pay a specific amount to try and mitigate it,” said Moore.

Interestingly, while the study revealed that Canadians are willing to pay more for their energy to be more environmentally friendly, it also demonstrated that many Canadians don’t understand how to be more environmentally friendly with their individual energy consumption.

“That’s absolutely true,” said Moore, citing a section of the report discussing measures that people have taken to reduce their impact.

“Did you put light bulbs in?” he continued, offering an example. “And people like to think that that’s a real commitment – change out all the light bulbs and they’re done – when, in fact, that doesn’t really impact things very much.

“It also represents a key characteristic that economists have known about for a while, but we haven’t integrated it into public policy very well. And that is that once people make a change – you buy a new refrigerator, you buy a new stovetop or change all the light bulbs – you forget it. You don’t manage that anymore. You buy a new car that’s energy efficient. Done. And now the only thing you do is shop for cheaper gas.

“Once people identify that they ought to attack the problem, get lower bills or act more responsibly, they don’t tend to do it consistently.

“They only do it once.”

Moore believes Canada needs a system that better informs Canadians how to adjust their energy use patterns to conserve energy and reduce the impact on the environment.

“There is really a lot of room for directed and focused energy education programs that can really make a difference,” he said.

Moore suggested that the politicization of energy and environmental issues could be delaying that work.

“A little humility. A little less hubris. Where you admit your biases up front,” said Moore, indicating what he wants to see from those parties involved in the energy and environment debate.

Moore used Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline as an example of how political rhetoric distracts from the real issues.

“Long term, there’s going to be a need for other pipelines,” he said.

“More than that,” he continued, “there’s going to be a need for really consistent policies on right-of-ways.”

Moore thinks that their should be a national discussion on protected right-of-ways to eliminate future disagreements between landowners and the energy sector when that industry is searching for new pathways for pipelines and transmission lines.

“If we always wait until the last minute to debate it,” he said, “than the rhetoric and the contention are just going to increase every single time we have to face this. And it means … that you’ll either defeat things that are really needed in the public interest or you’ll get the government intervening and imposing things that really aren’t economically efficient or missed the market.

“We need an informed dialogue,” he added.

Moore also suggested that Canada needs a national energy strategy.

“We need a dialogue and we need a strategy of some kind that allows people to discuss this in a rational forum,” he said.

“That’s one of our major conclusions.”

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