by Kelly McParland, National Post
The other day Hiram Walker, a big distiller in Windsor, Ont., announced it would turn the roofs of its whisky-aging warehouse complex into a giant solar power complex, lighting up faces throughout Ontario’s alternative energy industry.
It will use the money from leasing the roofs to buy energy-efficient boilers that will cut its energy use by a fifth, making the deal like one big summertime Christmas celebration for green enthusiasts everywhere, not least in the government of Premier Dalton McGuinty.
Mr. McGuinty hasn’t had a lot of great news lately. His government is up for re-election in October and a poll this week showed the opposition progressive Conservatives have widened their lead to 11 points, gaining five percentage points in the past month. Ontarians appear to have made up their minds, and unless something radical happens to change them, Mr. McGuinty will be like toast in a solar-powered toaster.
The Liberals are hoping energy will become a “big thing” in time for the vote, especially its ambitious effort to create an alternative-energy business. They point to deals like the one in Windsor as proof of their far-sightedness. Problem is, Ontario voters may not buy the message, especially since it’s hard for anyone to know for certain whether solar-powered whisky rooftops are really a boon to mankind, or a boondoggle financed by fat government subsidies extracted from the pockets of taxpayers.
The industry, and government, insist it’s all good. Of course. By agreeing to pay many times the market rate for power generated by windmill and solar projects, they say, Ontario is planting the seed that will grow to a vast, profitable and self-sustaining new industry down the road.
The Conservatives just roll their eyes. The “industry” will thrive exactly as long as the province agrees to keep paying a fortune for the result, they say. “If they announce tomorrow that they’re going to pay $7 a dozen for eggs, I suspect a lot of people are going to be investing in laying hens. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be good for the people buying eggs in the supermarket,” said energy critic John Yakabuski.
So who’s right? The trouble for the Liberals is that it’s impossible to know. Unless you’re an expert in the energy business, and maybe even if you are, there’s no way to be sure. The Liberals are making a big bet that they can create enough of a groundswell to establish an industry that will eventually support itself. But no matter how well-meaning, there are big problems with that. It assumes conditions no one can predict. Just ask other provinces that have poured money into industries they thought would take off, like New Brunswick‘s disastrous attempt at an auto industry, or Alberta’s many efforts to wean itself off its dependence on the energy sector. Politicians just don’t have a great record of predicting the future of free enterprise.
Since voters are no better at reading crystal balls, they will have to make a decision based on their trust in the government. Do they think Dalton McGuinty has it all figured out? Are they willing to keep paying higher electricity bills to find out?
Or are they onside with the pessimists in the Conservative ranks who think the government never gets anything right anyway, so why let it throw good money after bad? The Liberals have been staging photo ops all over the province to play up the “jobs” they are creating while warning that Tory plans are a “threat” to the nascent industry. Energy Minister Brad Duguid was at it again this week, on a rural road near Lake Huron, where the countryside is already covered in subsidized windmills producing subsidized power, “creating” hundreds of jobs. Duguid revealed that 25 new large-scale renewable energy projects would produce more than 1,000 megawatts.
Hunkered down not far away lay Bruce Power, whose two nuclear generating stations already produce 4,700 megawatts, enough to power a fifth of the province without the need for subsidized rates. If Mr. Duguid and Mr. McGuinty seriously hope to convince voters that windmills are a better bet for the future, they may need a whole lot more photo ops, or much bigger windmills.