by Tyler Hamilton, Toronto Star
Deep down most people would agree that transitioning our energy system to cleaner, low-emission sources is necessary, and that making this transition won’t come initially without added cost.
Most people would also agree that the electrical grid – the wires that criss-cross our province and feed power to our homes – needs to become more efficient and flexible over time, the same way our basic telephone and cable networks have been transformed into high-speed carriers all things digital.
But problems emerge when we try to implement such visions, mostly because the blanket energy policies our governments tend to create reward some and penalize others. It spells trouble when the group that feels it’s being penalized or treated unfairly is bigger than the other groups combined.
This, demographically speaking, is shaping up to be the case with baby boomers.
“The boomers are concerned about the environment but the policies being put in place are going to have a very negative impact on them as they increasingly head into their retirement years,” says demographer David Foot, author of the best-selling book Boom Bust & Echo.
“Basically, as we get older our bodies start to have more and more difficulty adjusting to extremes in climate, so we turn up the air conditioners in the summer and turn up the heat in the winter.”
This isn’t just speculation. Foot has spent the past 10 years analyzing data from Canada, Britain and the United States and the trend is clear: energy consumption rises, per capita, as we get older.
The message here is that higher energy prices, as much as they’re inevitable, will be more difficult to swallow as the first wave of boomers head into retirement and take on fixed incomes. For many, every penny will be watched more closely.
“What’s more they’re more likely to be home during the day,” says Foot.
In other words, most boomers will no longer be heated and cooled at their employer’s expense during the workday. They’ll be at home paying peak-time electricity rates as the furnace runs full-time during the winter and air conditioner blows 24/7 in the summer.
This has huge implications for utilities as they move to time-of-use pricing for electricity. Boomers, as they head into their senior years, will have a more difficult time shifting their power use to cheaper off-peak periods from expensive peak periods. Many pre-boomers are already struggling to do so.
I emphasize baby boomers, however, because of what they represent politically: a massive block of citizens who, as Foot says, are more likely to vote than younger generations during elections.
Concerned about the senior backlash, the McGuinty government recently created the Ontario Energy and Property Tax credit, which offers up to $1,025 in relief for eligible seniors.
The government, as of May, will also increase the number of off-peak hours under the time-of-using pricing plan. Relatively cheap off-peak pricing will start at 7 p.m. in the evening instead of 9 p.m., perhaps recognizing that boomers, as they age, hit the pillow earlier.
Of course, the boomers have to make attempts to conserve electricity and shift their power use like everyone else. What’s ruffling feathers is that the time-of-use program is perceived as a one-size-fits-all attempt at shaping electricity use and many seniors, growing in political influence as boomers age, feel they’re being asked to bear a disproportionate share of the sacrifice.
Is there a creative fix to this? That remains to be seen, but politicians everywhere would be unwise to ignore their concerns. Foot says it won’t be until 2017 that the boomers get outnumbered by the generations that follow them, and even then, because boomers vote more often they’ll remain a potent force come election time until 2020, possibly later.
Environmentally, there is a silver lining as we feel the impact of this silver tsunami. “You’re less likely to drive when you get older,” says Foot. “So you do save energy, it’s just a different source of energy. Heating bills go up, but fuel for driving goes down.
Tyler Hamilton writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies. Contact him through www.cleanbreak.ca