No such thing as a free lunch? Well, how about Dalhousie Mountain on April 23, where Darrell Dexter unveiled his government's renewable electricity targets? Due to the generosity of Nova Scotia taxpayers, about 200 invited guests stuffed their faces with free sandwiches as they gazed at the gaggle of wind turbines that served as giant props for the premier's big announcement.
Thanks to veteran Herald reporter Judy Myrden, we now know that the government spent somewhere between $11,000 and $16,200 that day selling its plan for renewable electricity to the media and the public. Renting buses to get participants to the mountain, paying for audio-visual gear plus that free lunch came to $6,000; hiring outside firms to design and print 200 copies of the glossy booklet the premier held up for the cameras cost $5,200; and $5,000 went to pay a PR company to organize the event. Myrden reported that former deputy energy minister Paul Taylor was paid $11,000 to shepherd the plan through various government departments and Parker Donham, journalist-turned-PR-consultant, received $15,000 to write the 28-page booklet that is also available online. (I'm not just saying this because Parker's a friend, but the booklet is probably the clearest, best-written government document I've ever read.)
Myrden's front-page story in last Friday's Herald caused severe heartburn in the premier's office. So, chief of staff Dan O'Connor decided to fight back. Instead of writing a letter to the editor, O'Connor resorted to trickery. Using the pseudonym "O'Dempsey," he tried to post two separate comments on the Herald website attacking the paper for reporting that the Dalhousie Mountain PR event cost $42,000 when well over half that money was spent developing a detailed, five-year electricity plan. According to the Herald, O'Connor also questioned Judy Myrden and the paper's integrity and so, the editors never actually posted his comments online. When a suspicious Myrden phoned him up, O'Connor eventually admitted the anonymous posts came from him.
Why would the most powerful official in the premier's office hide his identity when criticizing a newspaper story? Well first, it's hard for any government official to defend spending thousands on news conferences, photo ops and free lunches when the government claims it's trying to restrain spending to balance its books. (Even the $11,000 figure, the lowest one possible for Moses Dexter's mountaintop announcement, would be hard to defend officially.) Second, the electricity plan calls for hefty subsidies to private renewable energy developers, including a Spanish billionaire who controls a big wind company. The government calculates those subsidies will cost Nova Scotian electricity consumers an extra one to two percent every year. Hence the need for a splashy announcement to soften the news of steady hikes in the price of power.
And finally, the government says it will rely heavily on industrial-scale wind power to meet its renewable targets. Not only is there growing opposition from rural people who would be forced to live near noisy turbines and whose property values would drop sharply, there's also growing awareness that large amounts of intermittent wind energy can't easily be integrated into the grid. As Australian professor Ted Trainer shows, the more wind energy introduced on the grid, the greater the need to back it up when the winds die down. The government says backup will come from burning natural gas, but if Trainer and other critics are right, turning gas turbines up and down to match wind fluctuations would be wasteful, inefficient and would likely have little effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Trainer's 2007 book is called Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society---an unpalatable idea for any politician staging a lavish news conference to peddle the reassuring message that we can save the planet with "green" wind energy without having to give too much up.
And speaking of giving things up, I attended the Dalhousie Mountain event, but, for the record, gave up the chance to consume Darrell Dexter's free lunch.