Thursday, December 22, 2005

Christmas Photographs

This year I broke a 30 year-old tradition that I've always cherished. I didn't send out Christmas cards. It wasn't a conscious decision, but rather a slow slide away from a ritual that I had attended to all of my adult life.

The problem is that for the last half a dozen years or so we have included a family photo in each Christmas card. Distant family members looked forward to seeing how much our little family had grown. I looked forward to the annual ritual of squeezing the six of us into a single frame. As long as I could do that, my family was safe and intact. At times, it's been a lot like herding cats, and yet somehow, somewhere, we've always managed to get the perfect family photo. Even after our eldest son joined the army we found a moment at some point during the year when we were all together and had a group picture taken.

Until this year. Christmas leave brought our son home to us on December 16th. I had already made up my mind I would make getting a picture a priority as soon as he arrived. The cards would go out late, I told myself, but at least we would have that one brief shining moment when everything that I hold dear ~ our family, our dog, our home ~ was held together like a precious jewel in my hand. But even as I tried to hold it, the jewel was changing, flowing through my fingers, as life flows from one generation to the next.

Earlier this year my mother-in-law passed away. The job of organizing her huge collection of family photographs fell to my husband. For the last several months Brian has lovingly sorted through a hundred years worth of photos, each one capturing a moment of a much simpler time ~ distant cousins on a sleigh ride, a Sunday picnic at the church, the old barns that have long since disappeared, a pet goose being chased around the yard.

The process is a slow and painful one. There are times when remembering what is lost, what has gone before, becomes too overwhelming. And yet there is joy in the task. Each tiny black and white image is a link to our past, culminating in the vibrant living color of my family.

Someone much smarter than I once said that time is what keeps everything from happening all at once. It helps us separate the days of our lives into manageable chunks and gets us through the toughest of times. We sort the good days from the bad, happy moments from the sad ones, joy from pain.

Toward the end of her life, my mother-in-law would often sit near the bay window in our kitchen and look out over the fields that she played in as a child. Her memories would flood in around her, sweeping her backwards in time to a place of endless sunshine. Her legs, no longer crippled with arthritis and age, would carry her across the apple orchard and into the valley below where she would dance among the flowers, full of energy, her whole life lying ahead of her like a bright shiny ribbon.

Charles Dickens wrote, "Remembrance, like a candle, burns brightest at Christmas time." Perhaps this is why I have given up on the idea of taking a family photo this year. Our lives are already such a rich tapestry of so many seasons past, so much love and remembrance, that the light from that candle is almost too brilliant to look at, let alone hold. Instead I will hold my family, both near and far, as close as I can to my heart, and I will celebrate the bittersweet joy of loving.

May the love of family, the joy of remembrance and the promise of hope for the future fill your heart and home this holiday season. To borrow from Dickens once again, "God bless us, everyone."

Monday, December 19, 2005

Winter Driving

Ontario's first carpool lanes opened earlier this week, just in time for the winter driving crunch. The new High Occupancy Vehicles (HOV) lanes are reserved for cars with two or more passengers, as well as buses, emergency vehicles and trucks under 6.5 metres in length. Motorists who get caught driving alone in the HOV lanes will be subject to a fine ranging from $ 60 to $ 500 and three demerit points. The HOV lanes are restricted to the 14-kilometre stretch on the southbound 404 that runs between Highway 407 and Highway 401, and the 14-kilometre stretch of Highway 403 that links Highways 407 and 401. Using these 14-kilometre stretches is expected to cut the average commuting time by 11 to 19 minutes.

If the HOV lanes are as successful in the GTA as they have been in several U.S. jurisdictions, it's expected that the province will continue to expand the lanes to other 400-series highways. The more they expand the HOV lanes, the more likely they are to get the attention of the 85 percent of people who choose to drive alone.

While the goal of the HOV lanes is essentially to relieve traffic congestion, they should also help reduce gas consumption, at least in the HOV lanes. More passengers in fewer cars mean fewer cars on the road. For those cars in the HOV lanes, it's also means less idling and better fuel consumption. It would be interesting to know if the additional idling and congestion in the non-HOV lanes wipes out any of these environmental gains.

For the rest of us who are stuck on non-HOV highways and city streets, there are number of things we can do to reduce our fuel consumption and improve winter driving safety.

Make sure that your windshield wipers are in good working order, and that you have topped up your washer fluid. Check that your tires are properly inflated. Driving on underinflated tires not only makes it more difficult to handle your vehicle in slippery or icy conditions, it can also increase your fuel intake by 4 percent. As an additional incentive, under inflated tires wear out much faster than properly inflated tires.

Idling your car in the winter isn't just bad for the environment; it can be very hard on your car's engine. Incomplete combustion means that fuel residues can condense on cylinder walls, contaminate engine oil and clog spark plugs. The best way to warm your car up is to drive it. With computer controlled, fuel-injected engines, you need no more than 30 seconds of idling before driving away. Your car's wheel bearings, steering, suspension, transmission and tires only warm up when your car is moving.

Unnecessary car idling isn't just about personal preference. Natural Resources Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency (OEE) has identified idling as a significant contributor to global warming. In total, 4 percent of the fuel that we burn in our cars is consumed by idling. According to the OEE, if every driver of a light-duty vehicle reduced their idling by five minutes every day of the year, it would prevent two million tones of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. The OEE estimates that this would be the same as removing 350,000 cars from the road.

Ten seconds of idling can use more fuel than turning off your engine and re-starting it. If you'te going to be stopped for more than 10 seconds ~ except in traffic ~ turn off your car. This includes things like drive-thrus, car washes and waiting to pick someone up ~ especially children after school, where exhaust fumes can be particularly damaging to young lungs.

The key to safer winter driving is to slow down whenever conditions are not ideal. This not only reduces the risk of having an accident, it can dramatically cut your fuel consumption. Cutting your speed from 112/km/h to 80 km/h can reduce your fuel consumption by 30 percent and also cut nitrogen oxide emissions ~ a key component in smog.

Finally, if the weather outside is frightful, unless your trip is urgent (i.e. life or death, or imminent collapse of the total Canadian economy) stay home. Please note: a sale at the mall does not constitute an emergency. Many employers have recognized that telecommuting can actually improve productivity and encourage their employees to work from home when it's convenient.


For more information about Ontario's new car pool lanes, or for more winter driving safety tips, visit the Ministry of Transportation

Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency is a great resource and provides information on everything from anti-idling campaigns to how to save energy at home and at work.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Energy Vision

The much-anticipated Ontario Power Authority (OPA)'s recommendations for how the province will meet its energy needs in the future is finally out. Since this is the holiday season, the Liberals have followed the tradition of releasing controversial reports to the paying public close to Christmas.

With 25,000 MW of the province's peak capacity of 32,000 MW targeted for phase-out, burn-out or shut-down over the next 20 to 30 years, the report is recommending a $ 35 billion investment in new nuclear power plants. Depending on your perspective, this news is either naughty or nice.

Municipal officials in the Clarington area (home of the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station) will no doubt consider the expansion of nuclear a nice bit of holiday cheer. Clarington Council is still smarting after losing its bid to host the controversial $ 18 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project. To help ensure that it doesn't miss the nuclear gravy train this time, Clarington Council formally announced last month that the municipality ~ or at least council members ~ would be a willing host to Darlington B, two new 700 MW reactors adjacent to the existing plant. Hot on their heels, Durham Regional Council passed a unanimous resolution also welcoming a new Darlington plant.

For those who would prefer to not fall back into a system reliant on nuclear power, the news is both naughty and unnecessary. According to a new report released last week by the Pembina Institute and the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), by failing to aggressively work toward improving energy efficiency in the province, the government is placing Ontario's environment and economic prosperity at serious risk.

"Towards a Sustainable Electricity System for Ontario? A Provincial Progress Report", evaluates Ontario's progress in three key areas ~ energy efficiency, renewable energy supply and replacing coal-fire generation ~ and finds the province's efforts wanting. Despite the appointment of Ontario's first Chief Energy Conservation Officer, one only needs to follow the money to see that the province doesn't have the courage of its so-called conservation convictions.

"The province has committed $10.5 billion on electricity supply compared to approximately $163 million on conservation and demand management ~ a ratio of commitments of 64:1," said Mark Winfield, Ph.D., Director Environmental Governance for The Pembina Institute. Despite all the hype about conservation, clearly the province is paying lip service to the idea of fully integrating conservation as a reliable part of its energy mix.

"Other jurisdictions have demonstrated major reductions in demand as a result of aggressive efficiency programs," said Winfield. "California and Vermont have stopped load growth by investing in conservation programs." By some estimates, these programs have been so successful that they may soon start replacing existing generation.

These programs worked because they were legislated, not because politicians said that conservation was a good idea. In Vermont's case, Efficiency Vermont was mandated by government order, much like Ontario will mandate what our future energy mix will be.

According to Pembina and CELA, that mix doesn't have to include coal or nuclear. In their joint 2004 report, "Power for the Future", Pembina/CELA estimated that aggressive conservation efforts combined with rapid but feasible investments in renewable energy would make the phase-out of coal and nuclear feasible. These are very smart people who have dedicated their professional lives to sustainable, innovative solutions. So why isn't our government paying attention?

Sadly, this would take some vision and a whole lot of courage, because being a visionary isn't necessarily politically expedient. What is expedient is the same old solutions which will pretty much leave us where we already are: seriously in debt and heavily invested in large scale, centralized generation, forced into a never ending cycle of selling electricity ~ rather than the services that electricity provides ~ so we can to pay off that large scale debt.

Courage and vision are qualities that seem destined to be mutually exclusive of being elected to make these decisions. We have great examples of how we can create a sustainable energy future. It's up to us to demand that our leaders do what's right, rather than what's politically expedient.


The Pembina Institute
Canadian Environmental Law Association
Efficiency Vermont
Ontario Power Authority

Monday, December 05, 2005


All anybody really wants in life is to make a mark ~ leave a token behind somewhere that says we stopped and visited for a while before returning home to the cosmos that spawned us. We want our lives to matter. Some strive to become captains of industry and amass great fortunes, while others choose to leave behind a legacy of art; still others create a flesh and blood legacy of children and grandchildren. And then there are those rare and precious jewels that simply wish to leave this world a better place than they found it.

My friend Irene was like that. I met Irene Kock and her partner David Martin in the fall of 1986. I had been inspired by a meeting with Jeff Brackett to join a group that he and Irene and Dave had founded. Its name was Durham Nuclear Awareness, and we became the self-appointed nuclear watchdogs in the area. While members came and went, the core group of about six people pretty much remained the same. When we began we couldn't even get the local media to take our concerns about nuclear safety seriously, but slowly the media, the regulators and the industry itself began to sit up and take notice. Jeff would often say, "Imagine what we could do if there were 12 of us!"

It would be nice to take credit for what happened, but it was mostly Irene and Dave who did the work. They would identify the issues, and tell us where we should focus our attention. Irene would spend days pouring over what Ontario Hydro called Significant Event Reports that chronicled the misdoings at our nuclear power plants. She used the Freedom of Information Act to get copies of secret documents. She made careful notes, presented her findings to local health committees, parliamentary committees and the Atomic Energy Control Board's review of various operating licenses. Measured, accurate and thorough, she pointed out huge holes in the nuclear safety net.

In 1999, Irene and Dave were given an opportunity to work for the Sierra Club of Canada, which meant they could finally earn a living wage for the tremendous work that they did. After a dozen years of meeting in our living room once a month, their work ~ our work ~ was suddenly legitimized.

And then on New Year's Eve 2001, Irene's bright shiny light was snuffed out in car accident.

The main hall at the funeral home was full. We tried to count ~ 400, maybe 500 people spilled out of the hall and into the crisp January air. We looked around in amazement. Half the people there were from the nuclear industry. The pretense of us versus them was gone, just like Irene. Everyone knew that Irene was the thread that linked us. David Mahoney, one of DNA's members, said that even those who never knew her would feel her loss. The idea of continuing without her was unimaginable.

Last week, I finally had a chance to tour the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. As I turned down the road towards the plant, Ontario Power Generation's sole windmill came into full view. Stately, slender and beautiful, hovering over the plant, it reminded me of Irene and I smiled.

Years ago, in the heyday of the nuclear cult, no one spoke out about irregularities at the plant for fear of losing their jobs. Today, safety is the first priority. Failure to follow strict procedures or to report those who fail to comply can mean immediate dismissal. Our guide talked about the changes that they have been required to make ~ a second fast shutdown system, upgrades to the fire protection and emergency services.

These were things that Irene had identified as problematic. These things that they now boast as being fixed were at the top of Irene's carefully researched "to do" list that she had patiently presented to the nuclear regulators years before. After almost four years of wondering what we were going to do without her, the voice inside my head says, it's already done. She made a difference. We made a difference. It happened, just like she said it would.

As we came to the end of our tour, our guide asked if anyone knew Irene. I couldn't believe my ears. He told us that the re-start of Pickering was conditional on the safety improvements that Irene had lobbied for. I cried like I haven't cried since her funeral. Her life, and her sudden stupid death, finally makes sense.

When I got home, when I could talk again without sobbing, I called Jeff, the gentle soul who first brought Irene and Dave to us. As I tell him the story I can hear a telltale crack in his voice. It mattered, I tell him.

It mattered, he says. Her work, our work, it all mattered.


The Ontario Power Authority, the government agency responsible for meeting Ontario's electricity needs, is expected to include new nuclear construction in its upcoming report.