Renewable Energy: The Debate

“We have become addicts of cheap energy!” exclaimed David Chernushenko, while many heads nodded in guilt-ridden agreement. Despite the possibilities of newer and cleaner renewable energy resources, it seems the vast majority of the population are not quite ready to embrace these higher-priced options. Additionally, many have a lot of concerns about the machinery and the environmental impacts required to produce this energy.

These points, amongst others, were discussed at the museum’s second Café scientifique of the season, held on November 25, 2011. During this event, participants discussed “Can we produce all the energy we need from renewable resources?”

David Chernushenko and Matthew Bramley sitting at a table.

David Chernushenko (left) and Matthew Bramley discussing "Can we produce all the energy we need from renewable resources?" Image: Sarah McPherson © Canadian Museum of Nature

Our two guest speakers were David Chernushenko, an educator, public speaker, Ottawa city councillor, and film producer/director, as well as Matthew Bramley, a Senior Associate at the Pembina Institute, having also advised on and led energy-related research and analysis projects.

Quite appropriately, the featured documentary was Powerful: Energy for Everyone, which was produced and directed by David. In a society that is all too quick to “flick the switch, turn the key, press the button, and then pay the bill”, the film explores what we can do to change these current attitudes.

Our society’s hesitancy to jump on board to clean energy boils down to the issues of over-consumption and our hopes for a “quick fix”. During the discussion, David stated that “as humans we are enamoured with technology,” and that “we are always looking for an invention to solve all of our energy problems.” He went on then to ask how many participants even turned down their thermostats before leaving, just to prove the point, and indeed very few hands went up.

Undoubtedly, new technologies must be considered and incorporated into our daily lives when available, in order to increase efficiency and promote conservation. But this is only part of the solution. And, as David proved, it’s not only about what could help, but also what each of us can do now to quell, or at least decelerate, our insatiable energy demands.

Another issue brought up during the discussion was society’s concerns about these new energies in terms of the often noisy and cumbrous equipment and installation that goes along with the process.

An image from the movie Powerful: Energy for Everyone, showing a field of wind turbines.

Wind turbines from Powerful: Energy for Everyone. Image: David Chernushenko © David Chernushenko

In the film, David interviewed several residents from Wolfe Island, near Kingston, Ontario, about their often apprehensive and irritated reception to the installation of dozens of wind turbines near their homes. During the café discussion, one participant spoke out about this very point, addressing the concern and reluctance that many people have with these large and cumbersome machines, often installed in massive quantities within a small area.

This person is a rural resident and lives in an area south of the city, for which wind turbine installations are currently proposed. “I chose to live [in the country] because I felt my quality of life would improve,” she stated—indeed, a common opinion shared amongst rural dwellers.

However, these are the spaces that are often exploited in order to accommodate the equipment used to produce renewable resources. In addition, once the decision has been made to install wind turbines, often residents living in these areas are consulted too late, with political decisions already definitive. She goes on to explain that “residents are nervous and have concerns… they feel they have no choice or say in the matter.”

David whole-heartedly agreed with this participant’s comments, saying that government officials are doing a real disservice to people by telling them “not to worry about anything.” It is also unfortunate that Canada has chosen this method of forcing wind turbines onto residents, rather than adopting the Northern European way of citizens owning and managing them as a cooperative, a point David explores in his documentary. Perhaps if Canadian residents not only benefited financially, but also were able to make executive decisions regarding the management of the energy, there would no longer be this resistance.

Matthew also agreed and stated that although managing wind turbines as a co-op may be a ways off for Canada, he insisted that large power companies should distribute the energy and allow for a greater diversity in how and where the energy is produced. Perhaps residents wouldn’t be as upset if only a few wind turbines were installed near their property, rather than in such large numbers, as is the case on Wolfe Island, which currently has 86.

People sitting around a table.

A group of attendees actively discussing renewable energy resources at the Café scientifique. Image: Sarah McPherson © Canadian Museum of Nature

However, the ultimate consensus of the discussion was that even if we could produce all the energy that we need from renewable resources, whether it be through wind, solar, geothermal, tidal or a combination thereof, our bad habits of wasting and over-consuming will continue to cause shortage crises. And indeed, while newer technologies will continue to improve efficiency, a complete reliance on the latest equipment cannot be the only solution to meet our ever-growing energy demands. Therefore, while a society that can produce 100% clean and renewable energy sounds wonderful, it will remain a pipe-dream so long as our stubborn attitudes go unchanged.

More Information on the Subject

To find out more about David’s film, or to order your own copy:

Although they don’t focus on Canada, these two publications provide valuable insight on climate change, including some valuable lessons from which our country could learn:

  • Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, by David Mackay
    This publication addresses increasing energy demand through the pathways of efficiency/conservation versus new energy production.
  • Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation: Special Report on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
    This publication assesses the potential of renewable energy technologies to contribute to securing future global energy supply and to mitigating climate change.
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