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Ottawa-based energy economist Robert Lyman has taken a critical eye to advertisements on energy conservation

This week, people living in Ottawa are being bombarded with radio and newspaper advertisements proclaiming that the electrical energy they “saved” over the past six years was enough to “power our arenas”.

How about some “truth in advertising”?

There is a big difference between reducing your energy use and “saving” money. When a residential householder in Ontario reduces electricity use, that may temporarily reduce his or her electricity bill, but it does not reduce the costs that are incurred by the various companies that are involved in generating, transmitting and distributing electricity. All of those companies are government-owned and regulated utilities. Unlike private companies that, faced with reduced demand for their services, have to cut back production and costs, the electrical utilities are completely protected by their regulated rate structures. When sales go down, they simply apply to the regulator (the Ontario Energy Board) to raise their rates per unit of sale, denominated in kilowatts per hour (kWh). So, the price for the consumer just goes up after the next rate hearing.

But it gets worse, far worse.

When the Ontario government advertises about “saving energy,” it is not talking about saving consumers money. It is talking about— in theory— reducing the costs associated with generating and transporting electrical energy to consumers. Reducing demand usually refers to two things: reducing the overall average use of electricity and switching the use of electricity from the peak periods of day and season to other times. Reducing the average use over time reduces the amount of generating capacity of all kinds that the electrical utilities need to build. Reducing the peak uses can, in theory, cut the amount of peaking capacity (electrical energy generation capacity that stands idle to be used when needed) that has to be built.

So, in theory, Ontario wants us all to use less electricity so that its utilities won’t have to build more expensive generating plants and transmissions lines. This is where things start to get bizarre. You see, back in 2002, people were justifiably worried that Ontario would not have enough generating capacity. So the province started to add more, and more, and more. In fact, Ontario has added more than 12,400 megawatts (MW) of generating capacity since 2002. As of March 2015, the Independent Electricity Systems Operator (IESO) had 18,458 MW of in-service generating capacity, not counting the significant amount of solar powered capacity that is contracted by the several distribution utilities in the province. The Ontario Auditor General, in his December, 2014 report, found that, while IESO is required to maintain an operating reserve of between 1,300 and 1,600 MW for contingencies, since 2009 the available surplus has been between 4,000 and 5,900 MW.

Meanwhile, IESO is busily contracting for immense amounts of additional capacity, mostly to meet the dictates of the 2009 Green Energy and Green Economy Act. In 2015 alone, newly contracted supply of renewable energy sources (wind, solar and biomass) totaled 1,700 MW, raising the amount of IESO contracted (but not necessarily built) supply to 21,000 MW. This contracted supply is on a path to reach 23,000 MW by the 2018–2022 period. Demand continues to fall every year.

With massive and costly oversupply and a legislated mandate to continue contracting for more, what does IESO do? Does it cut back on its “conserve, conserve, conserve” campaign? Why no, it ramps it up. The present focus is on two strategies — programs and pricing. The programs include plenty of advertising and financial inducements to get people to use less electricity, programs that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and are charged to — you guessed it — Ontario electricity ratepayers.

The pricing strategy is delivered though the use of “smart meters” and time-of-use pricing is to gouge ratepayers until they yell “uncle.” The rate for on-peak service went up on May 1, 2015 to 16.1 cents per kWh.

Despite all this activity, the surplus continues to grow. So the power is exported. In 2014, Ontario’s exports totaled 19.1 terawatt hours (TWh), sold at a loss of $1.4 billion. If current trends this year continue, export sales will reach an all-time high and an all-time maximum loss of about $2 billion. You already know who will pay for that.

In effect, every kWh saved is another kWh exported and more money lost. Keep that in mind when you hear the ads.

Robert Lyman