Focus should be on the economy, many say
Vito Pilieci and Lee Greenberg, Canwest News Service
OTTAWA — Consumers, businesses and green energy experts all over Ontario are panning the province’s new green regime initiative as a waste of time and money at a time when the province should be focusing on strengthening the economy.
The initiative, announced Monday, aims to spend as much as $5-billion to encourage the growth of renewable forms of energy as well as create as many as 50,000 jobs over the next three years. The province has not released specific details about how it will generate employment.
Wayne Samuelson, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour is not impressed.
“I wouldn’t count on one of those jobs to pay my mortgage next year,” he said Tuesday. “Politicians use these big numbers when they want to talk about how they are creating jobs, but when we are losing jobs you never hear them talk about it.”
Mr. Samuelson said Ontario lost 71,000 jobs in January, most of which were in manufacturing. The government’s promise of 50,000 new jobs over three years would work out to fewer than 1,400 new jobs per month
“We’ve been losing good-paying manufacturing jobs for decades. We could be doing so much more,” said Mr. Samuelson. “It needs to be part of a far broader economic package that includes infrastructure spending, support for people who need help, changes to Employment Insurance so people can deal with the crisis and real restructuring on how we train people.”
Further opposition to the province’s plan is coming from taxpayers who will see their hydro bills increase overnight in order to pay for the plan.
“It’s a new green tax,” said Kevin Gaudet, Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “There may be a bunch of disagreement about what the best way is to respond to challenging economic times. But the one area for which there is no disagreement is the issue of raising costs and fees and taxes. This is exactly the wrong time.”
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty fired back Tuesday saying the new regime is needed in order to change the way Ontario generates and transmits its electricity. He expects Ontarians will accept the higher costs and will try to improve their homes to use less energy.
“The price of electricity will go up,” he said. “But my mother’s not concerned about the rate, she’s concerned about the bill. She’s always looking for more ways for me to help her manage her energy costs and enable her to put more insulation and practise more conservation in her home. We need to be honest with ourselves about the decisions we make with regards to electricity in the province of Ontario.”
Mr. McGuinty claims the increase will see each Ontario resident’s electricity bill increase by 1%.
Conservative MPP John Yakabuski said the increase will total $400 per year for each ratepayer in the province. Spread out over three years, that equals an average of a 30% increase, he said.
But Energy Minister George Smitherman said Ontarians won’t be paying off the proposed investment anytime soon. He said the full $5-billion would be paid off over several decades.
The government’s plan includes revamping Ontario’s electrical pipelines so that people can install wind and solar energy generators on their homes and sell excess power back to the province. It would also remove the need to consult with a municipality before the construction of large wind and solar farms in Ontario, and it will require home sellers to conduct an energy audit on the home they are selling.
The audit, which costs around $300, will point out where a home can be improved in order to increase its energy efficiency. Mr. McGuinty said the $300 audit is a simple matter that lets a homebuyer know what, if anything, they can do to improve the home’s energy efficiency.
He suggested sellers negotiate with their buyer and try to build the additional cost of the audit and any improvements into the home’s sale price.
However, the Ontario Real Estate Association said there is nothing simple about the new audit. Gerry Weir, President of the OREA warned the audits could end up costing home sellers thousands.
“It’s not the initial cost of these audits that concerns us,” Mr. Weir said in a release. “These audits will be used by home buyers as bargaining chips to significantly reduce the final selling price.”
Mr. Weir said there are no standards or regulations for energy audits in the province today. Without those standards, the results of an energy audit would be meaningless.
The audit could see trivial matters, such as improperly insulated windows, give a homebuyer the opportunity to request $10,000 or more off the asking price of a home by claiming they need to install new windows before they move in.
“Today’s economic downturn is a terrible time to introduce this measure. Home sellers are already worried about lost equity in their homes,” said Weir. “A move like this, which will reduce their value even further, will not help them in any way.”
Guy Holburn, an associate professor in the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, said the Liberal government’s green initiative is nothing more than a new spin on a very old record.
“The government has made ambitious plans for the renewable sector and they haven’t come to fruition. We are seeing a repetition of past events,” he said. “If we go back to 2004 when the government first announced its renewable energy plans, they had ambitious targets. But the actual uptake has been much less than expected.”
Mr. Holburn, who has been studying renewable energy in Ontario for seven years and is now preparing to release a research paper on the industry, said lack of clear leadership and lax regulations have prevented more companies from setting up green energy production here.
“The ministry (of Energy and Infrastructure) changes its policies on a regular basis. We have had a new minister pretty much every year,” said Mr. Holburn. “Each minister has his or her own preferences and issues new directives and abandoned previous plans. This creates a climate of uncertainty within the sector, which scares off developers.”
Mr. Holburn said the government must set forth concrete plans that can’t be changed with a routine cabinet shuffle before it will be able to lure developers to build renewable energy developments in Ontario.
After fielding a full day of criticism about the plan, Mr. McGuinty hinted the legislation may have to change.
“Very likely there will be opportunities to improve it in some way,” he said, claiming he is committed to seeing the bill pass and adding that he has received international praise for its proposal.