Halifax’s Green Plan Must Fit Into The Bigger Picture

When municipalities begin to shrink it is very difficult to manage budgets. Tax revenue begins to dwindle but the same amount of infrastructure needs to be maintained. When there is a glut of housing prices go down and, eventually, so do assessments. Staffing levels are not easily reduced.

Conversely when there is strong growth the tax revenue grows more quickly than the accompanying expense. Halifax is in the latter category. Construction is booming and house prices have jumped. Those jumps show up immediately in the taxable assessments of houses that change hands.

Thousands of new houses, with higher average prices, add to the tax rolls. Deed transfer taxes have been a windfall.

Accordingly taxpayers may have been hoping for a gentle touch when Halifax considers the tax rate for the coming year. No such luck. The baseline increase in property taxes is 2.9%, already a bit of a disappointment.

In addition to that, staff is recommending an additional 3% for a broad array of initiatives supporting climate action. As councillor Waye Mason (a supporter) notes in his newsletter “All of this will cost a tremendous amount, both for HRM and for all of us individually.”

That might be bearable if the proposals for climate change spending were well considered. They are not.

In 2019 Halifax Regional Council declared a climate emergency. In June 2020 the “HalifACT 2050: Acting on Climate Together” plan was passed, with a goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
It is full of impractical or needlessly expensive ideas. Some examples:

  1. Electric buses will be a good idea when we have enough renewable electricity in the provincial grid. Presently more than half of our electricity still comes from fossil fuels, mostly coal. That will go down a fraction when Muskrat Falls power finally arrives as promised.
    Renewable energy sources are the preferred source for power generation so when an additional requirement comes along, say to charge a fleet of electric buses, it will usually be coal that meets the demand. Coal being more greenhouse gas intensive than liquid fuels it is questionable whether there would be any noticeable benefit to the climate.
    Yet plans are already underway to procure an initial 60 electric buses and build the necessary support infrastructure. Electric buses will make sense only when we have enough renewable energy.
  2. The authors of HalifACT 2050 want HRM to generate much of the added renewable energy itself rather than being part of a province-wide program. Accordingly they propose installation of 1300 megawatts of rooftop solar PV by 2030.
    A few months after the HalifACT report was released, Nova Scotia Power released its Integrated Resource Plan, which maps out the expected demand for electricity for the coming decades and the best ways to provide it.
    That report concludes that large scale solar is not cost competitive. Small scale installations that might be put on a fire station or library roof would be even less efficient, especially if some of the power is stored in batteries.
    Large scale wind projects are better. Halifax does not have good sites for them. They should be built in counties with higher hills and fewer people.
  3. To make wind or solar work will require firm imported hydroelectric power to keep it in balance. It is not at all clear when that will be available. Yet the plan requires electrification of “all HRM transit and municipal fleet vehicles, including ferries, by 2030.” Beyond that the plan requires that “by 2030, 100% of new vehicle sales are electric.”

Halifax is a municipality, not a city state. It is part of a province within a country and should operate within the provincial and national plans.

Fossil fuels are predominant today in transportation, home heating, and power generation. Replacing all of that with green electricity will require enormous amounts of new, renewable supply. Some of that can come from additional large-scale wind power in Nova Scotia, but most will have to come from imports, almost certainly hydroelectric power from Labrador or Quebec.

That is the hope for the Atlantic Loop. As noted in this space two weeks ago, there is no present understanding of what that will provide, nor when it will be completed. Plans by the city and province need to be built around that as it becomes clearer. It makes no sense to invest in highly visible but inefficient initiatives in the meantime.

Climate change is a global issue requiring a global response. People in Singapore will benefit just as much from Halifax initiatives as people in Halifax. Conversely, we will benefit from initiatives taken everywhere else on the planet.

We live in a prosperous country, and our province is one of the most carbon intensive. We should do more than our proportionate share. That does not mean that we should rush spending on projects that are needlessly expensive.

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