Last week, amid scorching temperatures that led to warnings about power blackouts, Ontario’s energy minister told an audience in Toronto that conservation was the main way to ensure the stability of the electrical grid.

But industry experts say the Ontario government has done a poor job of driving home the message of conservation to the public.

"I guess it is common sense — everybody knows that conservation is positive," says Reza Iravani, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto.

'Amongst users... there is the assumption that power is there regardless.'— Reza Iravani, University of Toronto

"But I don’t think there has been a major attempt to promote this concept."

On July 16, Ontario energy minister Bob Chiarelli said that conservation should take priority over new power plants when making plans for a stable energy grid.

Speaking at Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Energy, Chiarelli talked about the province’s "commitment to investing in conservation before new generation."

Dan McDermott, director of the Ontario chapter of the environmental group the Sierra Club, says Chiarelli’s announcement was short on specific measures, but it’s a move in the right direction.

"Credit where credit is due – they’ve announced a commitment. That’s frankly more than we’ve seen in the past," says McDermott.

"For years, environmentalists have been identifying conservation as the missing piece – the piece that ought to be the first piece."

Iravani says the key element in any conservation strategy is educating the public about its benefits, and that’s where the government’s efforts have been wanting.

"That is the difficult part of it, because amongst users, particularly at the level of individuals, there is the assumption that power is there regardless," Iravani says.

Combining strategies

According to the Ontario Power Authority, the province has a capacity of about 40,000 megawatts of power. Over half of that power is generated through nuclear, while another quarter is hydro-electric.

The remaining percentage is a mix of natural gas, coal and renewable sources such as wind, solar and biomass, which have become a major focus under the province’s Green Energy Act. The province has been shutting down its coal plants, a plan that should be finished by the end of the year.

Amir Shalaby, vice-president of power system planning at the Ontario Power Authority, says that conservation isn’t simply a matter of closing your windows when your air-conditioner is on or using your washing machine in off-peak hours.

Conservation efforts include everything from designing more energy-efficient appliances to setting standards that force developers to construct greener buildings.

"It takes a whole lot of strategies to make the use of electricity different, and make it compatible with the delivery" of power, says Shalaby.

One recent conservation strategy is the Peaksaver PLUS program, which is offered by a number of the province’s electric utilities as a means of managing the load on the grid. Under this program, consumers receive a free, programmable thermostat that allows the utility to remotely scale back a home's air conditioning by a few degrees during periods of peak demand.

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The hot and humid weather in Ontario has spurred many people to purchase air conditioners, which can be a huge strain on the electrical grid on hot days. (CBC)

The Ontario Power Authority says 200,000 consumers across the province have signed up for the program, and when activated, this cohort can reduce Ontario’s peak demand by up to 125 MW.

But as Iravani points out, measures such as these are meant to keep the grid stable rather than foster a culture of lower consumption.

Price as a deterrent

Critics of Ontario’s energy policy have decried the relatively high cost of power in the province, which is largely the result of pricing agreements the government made with producers of renewable sources such as wind and solar.

But the high price is in and of it itself a conservation strategy, says the Sierra Club’s McDermott.

"What you consider to be cheap, you tend not to value," says McDermott. "We know that there is a significant cost and a significant environmental cost [to power production], so yes, that price ought to reflect what it is costing us to produce the electricity. The pricing ought to encourage conservation."

Not everyone in the industry, however, puts as much stock in conservation.

"Yes, we should be as efficient as we can be in using electricity," David Butters, president of the Association of Power Producers of Ontario, told the Toronto Star last week after the energy minister’s announcement.

But Butters added that conservation "isn’t the answer to every system need."

Butters argued that conservation cannot bridge the gap when variable power sources like wind and solar aren’t producing, and has no effect on efforts to restore the system after a major blackout.

Iravani says one reason the conservation message has been poorly conveyed to the public is that there’s little financial incentive for utilities to do so. When people use less energy, it means the power generators earn less.

"There hasn’t been any major attempt to promote conservation of energy, and the reason is that there is no corporation, there is no entity, that can make money off that," says Iravani. "So there is no volunteer to do the job."

The Ontario Power Authority’s Shalaby says that rather than focus on conservation, the province should be looking at a variety of methods to improve the stability and efficiency of the grid – including increasing the power supply and optimizing transmission systems.

"One thing alone will not do the trick for the next five or 10 years," says Shalaby.