Here in Quebec, our hydro-electricity is so readily available that we have the cheapest rates in North America. Electricity is abundant, the valleys are already flooded, ecosystems lost ages ago (seriously though: dams are a problem), and the resulting methane production is dwindling. So why would anyone care about how much clean electricity we use? After all, it is the best in Canada (ergo, North America) for GHG emissions. We seem to have done a few things right, no?

Well, yes, but wait. As more people move to the cities [when they should really be moving (back) to the regions], efficiency increases the perception of abundance, and the draw on the power grid increases. The cities are not doing enough, yet, for themselves to keep the demand steady-or-less, or supply more of their own. Until businesses, municipalities, and utilities develop a local private/community power model, that electricity must come from somewhere. HydroQuébec doesn’t have many, or even any, incentive programs to help people switch to off-grid electricity generation, though, unbeknownst to many, it finally established a net metering option for self-generators to feed power back in to the grid. That will help a bit.

“During cold periods, consume wisely.” So unplug unneeded devices, put the dishwasher and laundry on timed delay, and program your thermostats!

Elsewhere, many utilities practice load-balancing: timing periods of demand by offering consumers preferred rates, after businesses close down for the evening and overnight (when one can run the dishwasher, laundry, bathe and shower, and charge electronics). HydroQuébec doesn’t do this, either. And yet meeting future peak demand is why they want to develop new sources.

The kicker is, cheap electricity is practically designed for waste.

Which is a problem, when we could be making more money if we were more conserving of it. HydroQuébec exports its power to Ontario, New York, New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, where non-hydro sources are still used: nuclear, coal, other.

If we collectively cut down our electricity consumption, HydroQuébec would be forced to make export deals and improve long-distance transmission to other markets.

This would mean that fewer mountain top habitats in Appalachia (which extends into Quebec, by the way) would be blasted into oblivion to get at the coal.

Load-balancing our demand would send further into the future HydroQuébec’s construction projects, including harmful ones like biomass. By “biomass,” they say liquor from pulp and paper mills, but they also mean forest litter. They don’t mean garbage or sewage digestion, which would be far better used to feed into Gaz Metropolitain’s supply chain, which instead comes from Alberta.

The planned life span of an electric plant is 50 years. There is only a 2% turnover rate of existing electric plants per year, but plants can be – and hopefully are – upgraded to the greenest technology available. Even hydroelectric plants could have a smaller impact on the environment. Because of the impacts of damming in western rivers, salmon are critically endangered and there is not enough political will to help them, and help the Southern Resident orcas that survive on them.

It’s a sobering thought: what kind of world we have for the next 50 years if, for every upgrade, or new plant installed, they DON’T have the greenest, most low-impact technology possible?

In related news, in 2012, the Nastapoka River has been permanently protected in a new park: Tursujuc. The previous government had wanted to keep it outside of park boundaries to reserve it for HydroQuébec’s future use. (Read about the park – it’s really impressive.)

And a dam removed in the Olympic National Park in Washington state is now being renaturalized by humans and animals alike.

Things to do to consume less heat

So where do YOU fit in with this concern? With energy efficiency, by sealing off heat losses. That’s where, at least if your heat is electric. If it isn’t, try some tips in Saving Electricity in Winter, and consider (a much newer post) installing a Pellet Stove.

With the recent blizzard that swept through Montreal that left about two feet of snow, I had an ample draft of -10º air coming in through cracks (a direct effect of sloppy construction inspection-related to the side effect of cheap electricity in the 1980s). So I went on a hunt to seal them with weather-stripping and caulking – available at any hardware store. I started this process years ago, when I first bought the place. Brrr!

I also wrapped my AC unit in window plastic on the inside and duct-taped it on the outside a few days ago. It is not the best unit for the job, so I will be getting rid of it in the next year or two. They had done a bad job insulating the front of the house where the second floor overhangs my front porch, and I have to keep that bedroom door closed, to keep its cold air from taking the heat from the rest of the house. I will upgrade this, too, with the coming green renovation.

Here’s a little thing you can do, too: I went to the hardware store Thursday morning and picked up outlet and switch plate gaskets (insulating seals). I opened up all the electric outlets —3 to 5 per room!—and some light switches, and applied the insulating gaskets.

The air gap you need to seal. It’s the same case if you have the more modern rectangular outlets. There’ll still be a gap.
The foam gasket that seals it. New kits exist for rectangular outlets, which also serve for large rectangular wall switches
The sockets can also be sealed with a gasket on each baby-proofing plug. Believe it or not, if you have a cold and draughty wall, it makes a difference
The plug gasket that comes in the punch-out kit

Electric outlets can be a significant source of drafts and loss of heat. I wish more apartment dwellers would make this small investment (probably $20 to kit out a large one-bedroom apartment) and cut their heating bill in turn.

Today, the temperature difference between the cold bedroom and the rest of the house feels less extreme.

In the meantime, for you, me, and everybody else:

It’s winter, and we’re not in California (where it still gets cold).

  • Wear an undershirt.
  • Put on a sweater or a housecoat and slippers at home.
  • For the outdoors: Good boots, good coat, good attitude.
  • The lower you keep your thermostat at home (staged between 18º and 21ºC during occupied hours, and 16º overnight, or while away), the easier winter seems.
  • Because human senses of comfort adjust to the climate. Remember: animals habituate to the cold, and so do we. They grow extra fur, and so do we – we throw on our favourite clothes. Just weather-appropriate ones.