Thursday, January 29, 2004 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Coal case file in N.S.

WE ARE the little engine that could. Pollute, that is.

According to a new study by the non-profit research group GPI Atlantic, Nova Scotia accounts for one-quarter of the sulphur oxide this country belches out to generate electricity. On a per capita basis, that's an astounding eight times the national average. We lead all other provinces in this field, despite the fact our economy is dwarfed by Ontario's.

The highlight reel doesn't end there. We pump many other poisons into the atmosphere, from carbon monoxide to dust and soot, at an alarming rate. "Like Canada, Nova Scotia is therefore a worse air polluter, on a per capita basis, than any OECD country," the GPI study concludes.

Thankfully, the big picture is not so bleak. The study emphasizes that overall air quality in this province has improved significantly over the past 30 years. This is mainly due to the closure of heavy, dirty industry, like the coke ovens in Sydney, and the introduction of emission controls for power plants and other smokestacks.

So we are making genuine progress. How we can make better progress is the real question facing us.

For the foreseeable future, we will continue to meet three-quarters of our power needs by burning coal, hence the sulphur problem. We export the quasi-totality of our natural gas, a far cleaner source of energy. And even though some power plants, like Tufts Cove in Dartmouth, can burn natural gas, it has proven far cheaper to send dirty bunker C oil residue up the smokestacks.

Part of the solution, obviously, is to turn up the heat on Nova Scotia Power. The utility should be legally bound to make renewable energy a growing percentage of the power supply, as is common in the United States.

A provincial committee studying electricity deregulation has suggested NSP be required, by 2006, to do just that.

In fairness, NSP has recently invested in two commercial-sized wind turbines - in Grand Etang, Inverness County, and Little Brook, Digby County - which contribute less than one per cent of the power consumed by Nova Scotians.

Wind power can only ever be a supplementary source, since its output is unpredictable. Still, we need more of it.

Real strides in developing renewable energy, be it hydrogen or wind power, won't be made without legislative impetus, simply because no one seems to be in a hurry to explore alternatives.

But Nova Scotians themselves are the other half of this equation. Unfortunately, they are not rising to the challenge very quickly.

NSP mailed out 35,000 pamphlets to customers last year, offering to sell them blocks of green power for $5 each per month. Only 350 - or one per cent - signed up for it.

"Seven hundred blocks of wind energy have been purchased, which means about 32 per cent of the annual production of our two turbines has been financially supported by green-power participants," NSP spokeswoman Margaret Murphy said late last year.

Surely, we can do better than that. If Nova Scotians love the environment as much as they profess to, not only should they embrace more green power, but they should also rein in their demand for regular power.

As the GPI report points out, simple consumer choices such as turning down the thermostat and snubbing gas-guzzling SUVs at the car dealership can substantially reduce air pollution - from ground-level ozone to smokestack fallout.

Prevailing winds have made the Maritimes the tailpipe of North America, but the truth is we are breathing far more of our own exhaust fumes than we care to think. We pay for this in acid rain and in asthma attacks.

Over the next few years, let's make even more genuine progress. Perhaps then we can attract national and international attention as the little engine that could - go green, that is.