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The Greatest Challenge


Published: 09/10/2012

by Jim Campbell

Everyone had been waiting for months. Finally the hydro crew went from pole to pole turning the switches and power flowed into the hamlets of Clyde Forks and Flower Station, just north of Lanark. In the summer of 1952, they were among the last places in rural Ontario to be connected to the province's power grid.

The lights went on, the fridges hummed, the toasters toasted, the radios sprung to life, electric kettles steamed and electric saws, drills and sewing machines were being tested. Water flowed out of the taps and there were marvelous ice cubes to be made. It was like 10 Christmases jammed into one day.

That night, I parked my motorcycle on a hill and looked back at the community. The lights were going off and on as people went from room to room to see each one with the new lights on. It was a magnificent day, a day that changed everything. Energy changes things.

The modern world has been created, enriched and defined by its use of energy, from steam to nuclear power. The dominant, consistent ingredient in industrial and social progress has been the use of energy.

The modern world, its strength, its civilization, its prosperity has been linked to the availability and use of energy. Turn off the electricity, close the refineries and the intricate structure of the modern world would quickly disintegrate.

We use power to make, to communicate and to transport goods and ourselves, and to produce our food. The people in another era who talked about King Coal understood that energy is the giant at the table.

In the developed world we are concerned because we have seen our use of energy increase year after year. In our part of town the local hydro company is replacing the underground wiring. Nothing has broken! It is just that a system installed 35 years ago doesn't meet the needs today. Its all the computers, dishwashers, air-conditioners, mixers, garage door openers, microwave ovens and power tools we have plugged in.

In a world that relies on power, we are facing important questions about the sustainability of the supply of energy, about pollution, conservation, efficiency and alternative sources. The spectre of the effects of global warming is frightening. The word is out that if we put our efforts into harnessing the wind, the waves and the sun, and work seriously at conservation and efficiency, we'll be okay. There is talk that 10 per cent of the power we use today could be supplied by "green energy."

Sounds good. We should do all those things. However, there are a few problems.

Evidence shows that the amount of energy we need to sustain the fabric of our society grows faster than we can harvest energy from conservation, from the wind, waves, water and the sun. By the time "green energy" meets today's 10 per cent amount, our need for energy will have grown.

What about the underdeveloped countries? A graph plotting the levels of energy consumption per capita and the prosperity of people -- their access to clean water, schools, medicine, food and jobs -- showed that energy consumption and social development followed the same line on the graph.

Lifting the poor countries out of their poverty is dependant on their access to power. That's a huge amount of energy because there are a lot of poor people and poor countries. This goes a long way to explain why developing countries have pollution problems and don't rush to sign accords to reduce or restrict their energy uses.

Does that mean we are in a "Catch 22" position?

Hardly! To begin we need to stop talking about "less" and start talking about "more." The world needs more energy, not less. To meet the increased need for energy, it is clear it will have to come from technology that doesn't pollute or cause global warming.

Where will the new sources come from? I don't know. What we need is a giant international scientific energy research project. A twenty-first century equivalent to the wartime Manhattan project on Atomic Energy  -- added to the massive effort expended to explore space. Yes, and add to that the size of the worldwide project to map the human genetic code.

It'll take at least a couple of decades to deal with this gigantic challenge. It is the greatest challenge the world has ever faced. It is time we got on with it.

Home Digest columnist Jim Campbell is a writer based in Oakville, Ont. Your comments are always welcome by e-mail to or via post at 268 Lakeshore Rd. E., # 604, Oakville ON L6J 7S4.

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