News

1. The biomass dodge is costing us $7 million

Wood chips outside the Brooklyn Energy plant. File photo by Jennifer Henderson

“Thanks to a provincial government decision, Nova Scotians could be looking at a future power rate increase,” reports Jennifer Henderson:

The decision splices together the strands of many competing public and private priorities, and depending on where you sit, you’ll rank them differently. They include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, meeting renewable energy targets, preserving forestry jobs, and — if you’re the governing party – getting re-elected.

The Halifax Examiner has learned that in 2020, the Minister of Energy authorized Nova Scotia Power (NSP) to pay its parent company Emera up to $7 million to provide additional renewable energy from biomass. The decision in question is an order for NSP to “maximize” the use of what’s known in the energy business as “dispatchable renewable electricity” at its Point Tupper facility and its Brooklyn Power biomass plant. How and why that happened is the subject of this story.

Burning biomass is an expensive and inefficient method to generate electricity. Usually, the power company has the authority to choose the least-cost fuel option. But that changed last spring, as a result of two separate events — both of which brought a significant political dimension to the fuel sourcing issue.

First, the Northern Pulp mill shut down. The province was under intense pressure to find new markets for bark and woodchips which the pulp mill had been buying from sawmills and forestry companies.

Then, less than two months later, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the shutdown of construction activity at Muskrat Falls in Labrador. This latest delay in the troubled megaproject meant the delivery of a large amount of hydroelectricity wouldn’t arrive in Nova Scotia until at least the middle of 2021 (the current ETA…not written in stone). Without it, NSP couldn’t meet its 2020 legislated target of producing 40% of its electricity from renewable sources.

Woody biomass (chipped trees, bark, etc.) remains designated as a “renewable” energy source in Nova Scotia. But many scientific studies and environmental groups maintain the fuel is not truly “renewable” because the clearcutting involved erodes the carbon storage capabilities of forested land (as opposed to just in the trees themselves) and because even just considering the trees, it takes decades to replace the stored carbon lost when tree material is burned for electricity.

That debate over biomass’s “renewable” designation may partly explain why (as reported by the Halifax Examiner) it wasn’t until September 30 that citizens first learned the government had authorized NSP to generate more renewable electricity from biomass back in May.

At no time, from May through September, was there any mention of an extra payment being made to Brooklyn Power (owned by Emera) to fire up those biomass boilers, which usually do not run during the summer months but did this year.

It was October before lawyers who represent consumers and large and small businesses during power rate hearings first learned of the potential $7 million cost.

Click here to read “How Emera is profiting off Nova Scotia Power customers in a questionable scheme for green power.”

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Henderson put a great deal of work into this article, and it shows. It’s a long slog through dozens of documents, some of them hundreds of pages long, submitted to regulatory agencies, and responses to her questions from government spokespeople.

It’s good to start the year with this piece, to set the tone for what the Examiner hopes to accomplish in 2021.

As to the issues raised, I fear biomass will increasingly become the ruse government relies on to pretend it is addressing greenhouse gas emissions. For both better and worse, the Dexter government decided that the bulk of Nova Scotia’s GHG reduction target could be met via the Muskrat Falls project, and the McNeil government happily followed suit. But even before the delays in the hydro project, beyond a small range of projects that won’t disrupt the status quo, there hasn’t been any truly impressive strategy for further reductions.

In fact, it’s been business as usual. Highways continue to be overbuilt, the Burnside Expressway example #1. Provincial financial support for mass transit remains nearly non-existent. There’s no plan to quickly close any of the coal-fired power plants. Forests are managed to maximize short-term export returns, with no thought of their capacity as long-term carbon sinks. And on and on.

There may be a political logic in increasing power rates in order to burn more biomass so people in forest industries can keep employed. But if so, the McNeil government, which gained power by promising not to raise power rates, should own that strategy and speak about it honestly instead of hiding behind a myriad of regulatory requirements that require an investigative journalist to unravel. And, the government should acknowledge the lie at the heart of the equation: as employed in the large industrial boilers, biomass is not a green power source.

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2. Liberals

“Welcome to 2021!” writes Stephen Kimber:

In addition to figuring out the appropriate trash folder into which to dump all of 2020 (along with last week’s plethora of pleading emails — Last chance to take advantage of 2020 savings… Last chance in 2020 to donate to this worthy cause… First chance to take advantage of 2021 savings… First chance in 2021 to donate to that worthy cause…), I guess it is finally, reluctantly, time to pay attention to that other matter of moment.

Which is… Which white he — and he will definitely be a white he — should be our next premier? Randy Delorey? Labi Kousoulis? Iain Rankin?

I have no obvious, jump-out-of-the-computer-screen answer to that question, but don’t worry. No one who matters cares what I think. Or, for that matter, what you think. Not yet. Not until the next election.

On Feb. 6, 2021, someone somewhere in the ether will announce — cue the pre-recorded applause, the digitized balloon droppings — the name of the next leader of the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia, as chosen by however many registered delegates cast ballots in the party’s online leadership convention.

The winner will, whether we like it or not, automatically also become the next premier of Nova Scotia.

Click here to read “Would you buy a used government from one of these guys?”

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3. COVID-19

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

On Saturday, the province announced 13 new cases of COVID-19 had been detected on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.

Eleven cases were reported on Friday — 10 in Nova Scotia Health’s Central Zone and one in the Northern Zone. Eight of the 11 cases are close contacts with previously announced cases, while the other three (including the Northern Zone case) are related to travel outside Atlantic Canada.

According to a provincial press release, five of the eight close contact cases reported Friday are “at” Churchill Academy, a private school in Dartmouth, which like all schools in the province has been closed since December 18. There were two previous cases “at” the school, but the press release doesn’t say if the seven cases are related to each other or how transmission occurred “at” a school that has been closed.

Additionally, two more cases of COVID-19 were reported on Saturday — one in the Central Zone that is related to travel, and one in the Northern Zone that is still “under investigation,” meaning we’ll never hear about it again.

There are now 27 known active cases in the province. One person is in hospital with the disease, albeit not in ICU.

Here are the new daily cases and seven-day rolling average as of Saturday, since the start of the second wave (Oct. 1):

And here is the active caseload for the second wave:

Additionally, over the holiday weekend Public Health issued the following potential COVID exposure advisories:

Anyone who was on the following flights in the specified row and seats is asked to continue to self-isolate and immediately visit https://covid-self-assessment.novascotia.ca/en to book a COVID-19 test, regardless of whether or not they have COVID-19 symptoms. You can also call 811 if you don’t have online access or if you have other symptoms that concern you. All other passengers on these flights should continue to self-isolate as required and monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19.
  • WestJet flight 248 travelling on Dec. 23 from Toronto (9:00 a.m.) to Halifax (12:00 p.m.). Passengers in rows 8-14 in seats A, B, C and D are asked to continue to self-isolate and immediately visit https://covid-self-assessment.novascotia.ca/en to book a COVID-19 test, regardless of whether or not they have COVID-19 symptoms. All other passengers on this flight should continue to self-isolate as required and monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19. It is anticipated that anyone exposed to the virus on this flight on the named date may develop symptoms up to, and including, Jan. 6, 2021.
  • WestJet flight 248 travelling on Dec. 27 from Toronto (10:00 a.m.) to Halifax (12:30 p.m.). Passengers in rows 1-4 in seats A, C and D are asked to continue to self-isolate and immediately visit https://covid-self-assessment.novascotia.ca/en to book a COVID-19 test, regardless of whether or not they have COVID-19 symptoms. All other passengers on this flight should continue to self-isolate as required and monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19. It is anticipated that anyone exposed to the virus on this flight on the named date may develop symptoms up to, and including, Jan. 10, 2021.
  • Air Canada flight 624 travelling on Dec. 27 from Toronto (9:00 p.m.) to Halifax on Dec. 28 (2:00 a.m.). Passengers in rows 15-21 in seats C, D, E and F and rows 1-4 in seats A, C, and D are asked to continue to self-isolate and immediately visit https://covid-self-assessment.novascotia.ca/en to book a COVID-19 test, regardless of whether or not they have COVID-19 symptoms. All other passengers on this flight should continue to self-isolate as required and monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19. It is anticipated that anyone exposed to the virus on this flight on the named date may develop symptoms up to, and including, Jan. 11, 2021.
  • Air Canada flight 604 travelling on Dec. 29 from Toronto (8:00 a.m.) to Halifax (11:30 a.m.). Passengers in rows 16-22 in seats A, B, C and D are asked to continue to self-isolate and immediately visit https://covid-self-assessment.novascotia.ca/en to book a COVID-19 test, regardless of whether or not they have COVID-19 symptoms. All other passengers on this flight should continue to self-isolate as required and monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19. It is anticipated that anyone exposed to the virus on this flight on the named date may develop symptoms up to, and including, Jan. 12, 2021.
Out of an abundance of caution and given the current testing capacity available, anyone who worked or visited the following location on the specified date and time is asked to visit https://covid-self-assessment.novascotia.ca/en to book a COVID-19 test, regardless of whether or not they have COVID-19 symptoms. You can also call 811 if you don’t have online access or if you have other symptoms that concern you.
If you have symptoms of COVID-19 you are required to self-isolate while you wait for your test result. If you do not have any symptoms of COVID-19 you do not need to self-isolate while you wait for your test result.
  • Mic Mac Mall (21 Mic Mac Blvd, Dartmouth) on Dec. 19 between 12:30 p.m. and 3:40 p.m. It is anticipated that anyone exposed to the virus at this location on the named date may develop symptoms up to, and including, Jan. 2, 2021.

I’ve updated the possible exposure map to remove the advisories that have expired (including the one for MicMac Mall above):

The province should release COVID numbers for yesterday and today later this afternoon.

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4. Delorey, restaurants, and debt

Former Health and Wellness Minister Randy Delorey. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

This morning, Randy Delorey, a Liberal leadership candidate who has at various times been both Health and Finance minister in the McNeil government, has issued a press release acknowledging that the lockdowns and restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic have severely disrupted people’s lives and have hurt businesses.

The press release goes on to make a long list of promises, starting with significant aid to businesses, to help the economy rebound post-pandemic. They are:

Support Nova Scotia businesses
• Defer provincial tax and loan payments until after the state of emergency is lifted.
• Implement a tax holiday in 2021 for hospitality and food service businesses.
• Create small business cash flow loans for heavily impacted sectors.
• Provide grants for facility upgrades and remarketing initiatives to tourism and cultural operators.
• Cap third-party delivery fees for online food and beverage orders.
• Fund technology training for small businesses to increase productivity, efficiency, and competitiveness.
• Fund short-term training for high-demand fields so local businesses can hire more Nova Scotians, meet their skilled labour needs, and grow their companies.

The press release goes on with a bunch more promises, but they are mostly just reiterating existing programs or mealy mouthed assurances that a Delorey government would “explore” this or that and “work closely with the federal government” to make a perfect world. We’ll follow up with Delorey later today and will publish a full article about this, but I wanted to get the business support promises out there this morning because, well, he doesn’t put a price tag on any of it, and doesn’t say if some of the proposals are actually possible or even a good idea.

Let’s talk about restaurants, for example.

There’s no easy time to run a business, says this business owner. And during the pandemic, restaurants in particular have been hit hard.

When the pandemic started and gathering limits and indoor-dining restrictions began to be placed on restaurants, it became obvious that many, maybe even most, restaurants would fail.

I had a lot of conflicting thoughts in those early days. It seemed to me there should have been some sort of rent and mortgage moratorium, a kind of freeze on timed payments until the crisis was over, and from a business and personal housing perspective we could all pretend we were just on a long bankers’ holiday.

That of course didn’t happen, and instead the powers that be developed a range of programs that gave some assistance but didn’t at all threaten the financial industry, which has in many respects become the reigning god of our society. The worst of these new assistance programs, it seemed to me, were the government loan programs; that’s because for many businesses the loans merely kicked the inevitable closure down the road while further indebting the business owners.

It probably would have sounded callous, so I didn’t say it, but I thought that if the pandemic was going to last four or five years (which seemed likely to me at the time), it made more sense for most restaurants to simply go bankrupt and close, and then after a vaccine had been developed we could concentrate on reconnecting the business people, chefs, and servers to the restaurant spaces that had been vacated during the pandemic bankruptcies. The trick, it seemed to me, was to make sure all these talented people weren’t overrun by the truly big money of corporate chains and the like.

Thankfully, however, vaccines have been and continue to be developed in record time. Instead of a four- or five-year pandemic, it looks like we’ll start emerging from this calamity in more like 14 or 15 months, and reach an end to the restrictions completely in something like a year and a half. That quick turnaround changes the equation for governments’ approach to restaurants: it now makes much more sense to prop the businesses up for the short term, help them stave off bankruptcy, and give them a fighting chance when things open up.

But how those supports are structured matter. My worry is that a lot of small business owners are going to be saddled with more debt thanks to things like Delorey’s proposal to “defer” loan payments and “extend” more cash flow loans. Sure, that financing might help a restaurant stay afloat until summer, but then they’ll be so hampered financially that they won’t be able to compete with newcomers in the market who are not saddled with such financing.

In particular, there are trillions of dollars in cash floating around the global financial markets just looking for a place to land, and we’ll undoubtedly see enormous investments in the hospitality and restaurant industries in the form of new chains and corporate-run restaurants. On a much smaller scale, there are no doubt local chefs and business owners who have simply sat the pandemic out, and can reenter the market in late summer carrying no more than the usual amount of debt, and not the hyper debt carried by those who took advantage of government financing just to survive.

Not all of this is bad. The restaurant industry will survive, and I think there will be a short-term explosion of new offerings over the next year or so that will be good for consumers and employees. But let’s not ignore the fact that many of our favourite restaurants will fail precisely because they survived the pandemic, and with that failure will come a great personal loss to the business owners.

I don’t have any answers to this, but I think we should keep the dynamic high in mind when thinking about how to assist small businesses. We should do whatever we can to avoid burdening them with additional debt.

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5. Delivery fees

Also, just to highlight, Delorey says that as premier he would “cap third-party delivery fees for online food and beverage orders.” This is in reference to the very high charges imposed on business owners by Uber Eats, Skip the Dishes, and the like.

Last I heard, Skip the Dishes charges restaurants 30% of the costs of every delivery. So if you get a $20 meal delivered, the restaurant has to pay Skip the Dishes $6. Honestly, I don’t know how this makes financial sense for restaurants, but they evidently feel they have to pay it.

A Delorey government will inevitably face a court challenge to such a delivery fee cap, so I’d like to hear how he proposes to come out victorious. Who knows, maybe he can.

But in the short term, customers should understand that it helps the restaurant much more to go pick up that to-go order yourself or make use of the restaurant’s own delivery service (if they have one), and skip the app.


Government

City

No meetings today or Tuesday.

Province

Monday

No meetings.

Tuesday

Community Services (Tuesday, 10am) — Video conference. Pamela Magee from the Nova Scotia Division of the Canadian Mental Health Association will talk about “Impacts of COVID-19 on the Mental Health of Vulnerable Nova Scotians Who Utilize Community Services Supports.”


On campus

No public events.


In the harbour

05:00: MOL Motivator, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Colombo, Sri Lanka
06:00: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, arrives at Pier 41 from St. John’s
16:00: Boheme, car carrier, arrives at Autoport from Southampton, England
17:00: Tropic Lissette, cargo ship, sails from Pier 42 for Palm Beach, Florida
18:00: MOL Motivator sails for New York


Footnotes

Gearing up for another year…

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Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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12 Comments

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  1. There is nothing green about burning biomass for electricity. Nothing. Biomass should be removed from the provincial Renewable Energy Regulations. Period.

  2. Knowing some people who used to be in the restaurant industry, yes, in some cases conditions are rubbish. BUT some LOVE it too.

    It needs to change but to make all restaurants non-profit is not the answer. Providing free meals to people? Great idea and possible on a limited basis, but one still has to pay for rent, supplies, salaries, etc. Is the suggestion here that the government should run the restaurant industry? Taking this a step further, should all food be free and non-profit?

    The VAST VAST majority of restaurants in NS are not part of huge multinationals. Yes, lots of McDonald’s and that ilk out there, but here are many many many small diners and small restaurants run and owned by local NSians. I can list dozens off the top of my head actually.

    1. I hope those owned and run by local NSians are the ones that survive. I know one of my favorites, The Canteen, has partnered with The North Grove to help provide meals to people (like me) who live well below the poverty line here in Dartmouth North. I remember reading that The Canteen got some funding to help with this initiative. I know that when I have get the chance to go out and enjoy a good meal in Dartmouth, it is to The Canteen that I will go.

      Another local restauranteur, Chef Craig Flynn, will hopefully also survive. He too supports The North Grove. So far, I haven’t walked to Halifax (I don’t do buses at the best of times, so definitely not doing as we all wait to see the numbers following the holiday season), but I look forward to going over this coming summer and enjoying one a meal at one of his establishments as I more than once during the summer of 2019.

      Based on the line up of cars I see at any drive-thru window I pass on my daily walk, I expect all the McDonald’s and that ilk to report recording-breaking profits for 2020 (and likely for 2021 as well).

      1. Yes, this is the kind of stuff that has to be encouraged and expanded; it’s really heartening to see a few such restaurants genuinely trying to engage in and with their communities!

    2. Government would be far more useful if they actually did alleviate some of those other concerns you mentioned, through providing permanent rent control and generous grants and subsidies. Obviously, as Tim and many others have pointed out, they have been doing so in a haphazard and confusing fashion (at best, to put it charitably) for businesses.

      I think it would be far more practical for workers themselves to run the restaurants that they work in–after all, who would know them and their operations better than the people who keep them going every day? Glitter Bean Cafe is a stellar (and, actually, the only!) example of how this can work and be quite successful in the province. You’re obviously correct that there would still be labour costs and other operational costs involved, but I think once you remove the profit motive from the equation, you would very likely find yourself with a lot more money to put back into the business to cover those costs (which is not something, in my experience, the beneficiaries of profits typically do)!

      I agree with you: all food should be free and not-for-profit. That’s a great idea!

      Yeah, and all of them have to be ready to lose money for the first five or ten years of their existence if they want to even survive long enough to become profitable (I can’t cite the source for this, but it was a Restaurants Canada report from within the last few years). Even before the pandemic, it seemed pretty clear, with the considerable turnover of restaurants in the city, that this wasn’t really feasible for most of them! This isn’t to say that they necessarily should fail, but it’s no excuse to pay your employees poorly and exploit them to support your restaurant’s profits. Unfortunately, small restaurants are no less subject to this drive than large multinationals, but are at a considerable disadvantage in comparison. (And that is what happens, even if business owners almost never explain it that way because… well, it makes them sound monstrous!)

      That, to me, is a clear indication that profitability is a terrible way to gauge the worth of a business since it is so harmful to everyone involved.

  3. We don’t need the restaurant industry, such as it is today, to continue; instead, we should be trying to use the unfortunate circumstances of the pandemic to develop restaurants that aren’t concerned with making a profit and actually serving the communities that they always claim they’re a part of in their advertising. Restaurants, if they really were part of the community, could have been providing free meals to disabled people unable to leave their home during the initial lockdown, for example.

    It’s not as if the wonderful people who work in restaurants (servers, cooks, bartenders, dishwashers, etc.) love their working conditions and have any great fealty to their employers. No doubt, however, many of them probably do genuinely enjoy creating and serving food to people though! Part of it is because of multinational corporations but it’s not entirely because of them: the working conditions in the restaurant industry are awful–erratic scheduling, no breaks, abysmal pay, and so on–and probably some of the worst in the entire hospitality industry, and I would say this is even more true of local, small business restaurants regardless of the kind of food or vibe they’re going for (“locavore,” vegan, pub food, etc.).

    Michael Petrucetti has an interesting article in Passage from December 21 that attempts to sketch out what a “revolutionary restaurant” might look like: https://readpassage.com/looking-beyond-the-abolition-of-restaurants/

  4. As to generating power from biomass, NB Power had looked at biomass as a way to keep open the Dalhousie generating station which ran on oil and Orimulsion. (Venezuela stopped making Orimulsion). It concluded that there wasn’t enough available “waste” biomass in the whole province to keep a station that large operating, although they were looking at forestry “waste” and not actually felling and chipping trees solely to run the station. Biomass “waste” from forestry is used in pulp mills, which also buy chips and sawdust from sawmills. I think some is used as biomass for boilers, and the chips and such in the actual production of the pulp. (It seems a waste to burn chips and sawdust, when it can be used for a value-added product like pulp.) Much of the “waste” is left in the forest for environmental reasons, I was told, and also there is only so far you can ship this stuff for it to be economically viable to use. I don’t know but assume Nova Scotia companies who produce biomass as a byproduct of their operations have already looked at shipping it out-of-province, say by rail to New Brunswick pulp mills, and found it not financially viable.

  5. I wondered that myself about city restaurants and the loans, particularly since even with vaccines it isn’t clear if white collar workers will be back working in downtown offices any time soon. If people continue to work from home they are more likely to continue to make and eat their lunch at home.

  6. Some restaurants are dealing with the Skip the Dishes etc fees by operating under a different name on the delivery platforms and serving the same food at higher prices.