Get to know: The Conservation Council of New Brunswick

The Conservation Council of New Brunswick has been at the forefront of conservation and environmental issues in the province since 1969. We are excited that they have agreed to partner with the Green Resilience Project to host a conversation in Fredericton in January 2022. Our engagement coordinator Jessie Golem recently had the opportunity to speak with Adam Mahoney about CCNB’s work. Currently, much of it is focused on  the province’s transition to clean and green energy sources and how that transition will affect individuals, industries and the environment, as well as issues people are facing regarding accessing affordable and reliable electricity.

Jessie Golem: I didn’t realize that access to affordable electricity and heating was an issue for people in New Brunswick. 

Adam Mahoney: I could show you my electric baseboards in my apartment. I lived in Ottawa for a few years and natural gas was cheaper, generally. I don’t know why it is the case in New Brunswick, but it is that most homes, old or new, are electric baseboards.

JG: I wonder if maybe the older homes were built at a time where electricity was really cheap. So it made sense to have electric baseboards then as opposed to now? 

AM: Yeah, there are not a lot of regional natural gas resources. So maybe that’s a reason that there are [fewer] hookups—there’s not as much of a larger pipe infrastructure for natural gas to get to homes. 

JG: And for electricity in New Brunswick, is the province mainly powered by coal? 

AM: It’s a mix. 20-30 per cent is coal, 20-30 per cent is nuclear, 20 per cent is hydro. And then we get into smaller contributions from natural gas and oil and renewables, at less than 10 per cent. Obviously, we’re working toward coal phase out by 2030.

JG: Who gets impacted by that? The people who work in coal manufacturing, and homeowners and their electric bills?

AM: NB power does have a low-income energy savings program, where they’re offering grants to low-income homeowners to do small retrofits such as new windows and insulation. But they have pretty limited funding. It comes from outside the organization because per New Brunswick regulations from the Energy Utilities Board, NB power is not allowed to use ratepayer money to fund efficiency projects. Which seems kind of counterintuitive, because it’s a public good and will help ratepayers in the long run. But that’s the way the legislation is set up right now.

JG: This is one area of focus for CCNB, is it the only focus?

AM: We talked about affordability, [but there are] two other sections to our Atlantic electricity vision, [one of] which is reliability. So making sure people’s power stays on. NB power is arguing that they need to continue burning coal until 2040 to provide a baseload of power to deal with intermittency and renewable energy. The argument being that the wind doesn’t blow every day, nor does the sun shine. They want to burn coal until 2040, and they’ve asked the federal government for permission. 

JG: Sort of as a backup in case power doesn’t work from other sources? So NB would have coal as a backup, but that feels like a slippery slope too.

AM: That’s exactly what it is. It’s just an excuse to not make those major changes, and to delay [them to] further in the future. So we’re asking the federal government to deny the request for what NB Power is calling an equivalency agreement, and we sent letters to the Prime Minister and Minister [of the Environment] Steven Guilbeault. We believe there are other solutions. One of the solutions is a proposal called the Atlantic Loop Project or the Atlantic Electricity Loop, which essentially connects greater transmission lines between the four Atlantic provinces of PEI, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland along with Quebec, to have the larger capacity of hydro in Newfoundland and Quebec connected to the three smaller Maritime provinces. So there [would] always [be] a reliable backup of energy to deal with intermittency, so people’s power [wouldn’t] go out. CCNB is really interested in this project, and advocating for it, because a lot of energy trade that happens in Canada is from Canada to the United States. There’s not a whole lot of trade between provinces, and that’s something that could be used to backup a renewable infrastructure grid. 

The third aspect [of our Atlantic electricity vision] is sustainability, which I think is pretty self explanatory for a conservation group. Coal burning, aside from its devastating effects on the atmosphere and its contribution to climate change, has severe health effects on the people who live in those communities. So it’s not just the environment, but human health too. In regions like Saint John and Belledune where there’s more pollution, there are higher cancer rates and respiratory diseases. And so it just makes sense to phase out these harmful pollutants. Not just for the environment, but for human health as well. 

JG: We’ve talked about climate change and income security, but another focus [of the Green Resilience Project] is community resilience. What does community resilience look like in the work you’re doing?

AM: [In New Brunswick] there are people in energy poverty. There are a lot of remote communities, long rural communities that don’t have great connections to the wider grid. Fredericton is a region [with] lots of smaller rural regions that are basically part of the greater Fredericton area. And they know they experience power outages more frequently. Then you get into the more remote regions, where they might not be connected to the larger grid, they might be on a diesel generator or something like that. And so this idea of community resilience, resiliency—we’re trying to make sure people have the power they need.

JG: I also can’t help but think about our need for access to both electricity and the internet. Especially in the COVID era, when [digital] communication is important and people are working from home. Access to electricity and the internet is something I know that I take for granted.

AM: We had a hurricane about ten years ago now, and it knocked power out of the city for two weeks. Hurricane Arthur [it was] called. My parents’ house didn’t have power for at least a week. But a lot of places didn’t have power for over two weeks—it was a severe knockout, due to a lot of trees falling on power lines and stuff like that. 

JG: Being a Maritime province, you are prone to those natural disasters. And I would imagine a wider range of temperature changes, especially in the wintertime. 

AM: Yeah, you could have four seasons in one day! My experience in Ottawa was that it was a dry, cold winter, but in NB it can get really wet with a lot of snow. 

JG: And I can see that susceptibility to hurricanes and natural disasters, and also the wider range of temperatures, affecting power and hydroelectricity. 

AM: Fredericton has a big flood zone, too. Just in 2018 and 2019, we had two once-in-a-lifetime floods that were back-to-back. We’re used to flooding in Fredericton. But the degree of flooding that we experienced during those two years had not been seen since the 1970s. And they’re happening with a greater frequency. That can lead to grid interruptions as well. 

JG: Which seems like a direct result of climate change. And we’re seeing all these disasters increasing slowly, but throughout the whole world, we’re hearing more and more about hurricanes and tornadoes and typhoons destroying everything with more severity. 

AM: Yeah. So after those two floods, you really saw a collective consciousness [growth] in the city about the effects of climate change. We elected the [Maritimes’] first Green MP [in 2019…which] I think it just shows that people are more aware and more willing to engage with this conversation than before the floods. 

So I do think there’s a connection there. And Fredericton can be a little hotbed for green activity. Not to make this about politics, [but Member of Legislative Assembly for Fredericton South] David Coon is the elected Green Party leader, and there are three Green MLAs in the province.

I think that does signal some kind of consciousness. And we know that a party can’t get elected in Canada unless they have a viable climate plan any more. I could talk about politics for days. 

JG: Same here. 

AM: But back to our original topic: CCNB conducted a survey of Atlantic residents on their understanding of the electricity sector and the electricity grid. And what we found was people are generally aware of the electricity sector, but not so much beyond what’s in their power bill. We want to develop that knowledge [so] people understand why they get that number in their bill, and what decisions are made at the top level, and how those decisions affect them individually. [We also] found that people generally favour renewable electricity technology over polluting kinds and they want this infrastructure built in New Brunswick. We want to own our electricity first, and then we can connect with the other provinces. So I think people are cognizant of it at some level, but maybe don’t have the language to explain it. And this conversation with the Green Resilience Project will be a good window into how people are understanding these issues. 

JG: What’s your conversation going to look like? Who [will] be some of the people that [you’ll] be talking to? 

AM: We’re going to do it on Zoom, I think that will be easiest. Especially with COVID and new cases right now. We want to engage low-income people, workers and newcomer Canadians. We want to have a diverse representation of the region and get a breadth of all experiences. We want to understand how electricity affects people at all levels, so we’re also going to reach out to the multicultural association to see if any of their members or people they represent would be interested in talking to us. We’ll also reach out to tenancy associations and low-income advocacy groups.

JG: What are you hoping to learn?

AM: I’m hoping to learn what we [already] expect, which is that [people] want electricity that’s reliable, affordable and sustainable. You know, deep down, I think those are the issues that people care about the most. It’s hard to say, you know, it can be unpredictable. But I think generally speaking, people are going to talk about their power bill and how expensive it is. I think that’s just it. Affordability is such a big issue. I expect to hear that people only heat one room in their house in the wintertime, or have to make the choice between food and energy. And that, you know, it’s tough on families. It’s tough. So I expect to hear a lot of personal stories of how people are impacted, especially financially.

JG: I expect a lot of conversations like yours are going to be difficult because of that. 

AM: Definitely. I really want to nurture a safe space so people feel comfortable expressing their challenges and their difficulties. And their personal stories. Really what it’s all about is talking to people on an individual level, you know. High-level policy, like our electricity vision, is great, but if you don’t talk to people and understand their perspective, you’re going to miss the point. So this is a really good opportunity to do that.

JG: I think [hearing] those stories really does put a human face to all of this and makes us realize these issues are affecting our neighbors. 

AM: You know, you walk down the street, you don’t know which houses are struggling and which houses aren’t. Which houses are leaky, or whatever, you know?

JG: Yeah, and I know affordable housing is a big issue [as well], at least it is where I am in Ontario.

AM: It’s getting bad here too. 

JG: I wondered about that. 

AM: Houses are going for $20-30,000 over asking on a regular basis. And that’s having an effect on assessments and rent too. It’s just a vicious cycle. 

JG: Is there anything else that you want to add?

AM: We should talk about Indigenous representation in the energy system. I didn’t mention it directly, but despite what the current [provincial] government says, New Brunswick is on unceded territory. And so all energy decisions must have involvement from First Nations communities, and they must have ownership on those energy projects and have a shared stake. Reconciliation in the energy sector is also a really important aspect. There’s a First Nation Community called Sitansisk Wolastoqiyik that’s adjacent to Fredericton. And it would be great to involve them as well in this discussion. I’m not sure what their energy hookup is, if they’re connected to the city grid or not. That’s something to learn, to ask them about and share those stories. I don’t know if you saw the news, but the current provincial government recently released a memo saying public servants should not do land acknowledgments that say that we’re on unceded land. We disagree with this: we are on unceded land, and therefore any decisions must involve First Nations people.

More information about the Conservation Council of New Brunswick and their work can be found here.