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History recalls that we weren't always so Power Smart in B.C.

BC Electric Ad - Use it Freely

A half century ago, B.C. was encouraged to use abundant electricity

Posted by Marc Stoiber

Energy conservation is now part of B.C., where most of our electricity comes from clean sources, and as citizens, we pride ourselves on being Power Smart.

But it wasn't always that way. Leaf through books like Voices From Two Rivers and Gaslight To Gigawatts and you discover our relationship with power has morphed beyond recognition over the past half century.

So how did we go from 'Power Means Progress' — the catchphrase of BC Hydro in the 1960s — to 'Power Smart' today? The story is a fascinating study in our evolution as a society.

Electric power — use it freely!

If you had walked around B.C. prior to World War II, you would have seen billboards like the one at the top of this story from BC Hydro's predecessor, BC Electric. They reflected the North American spirit of breathlessly optimistic progress.

Every day, it seemed there was a new innovation that propelled us forward.

After the Second World War, technological advances spurred by war research upped the ante. The fruits of victory included not just freedom from tyranny, but a new, fresh-as-a-daisy life free of laundry drudgery.

Fresh as a daisy advertisement

This enthusiasm aligned with another view (widely held since the 1920s) that energy production far outstripped demand. It was believed production from fossil fuel generators and massive hydro projects commissioned during the Depression would eventually make energy 'too cheap to meter'.

This BC Electric billboard reinforces that belief, letting us know five power plants were ready for any sort of energy recklessness we could dish out.

Five power plants to serve you - British Columbia Electric Railway Co.

1973: The OPEC wakeup call

Between 1973 and 1974, oil prices in North America nearly quadrupled, due to an embargo created by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Although this spike didn't come close to the energy prices Europeans were used to paying, it rattled the consciousness of Americans and Canadians. It also shattered the idea of endlessly abundant supply.

The seventies brought a flurry of environmental legislation and the rise of energy advocacy groups such as the US Department of Energy (the group which, in 1992, helped create ENERGY STAR® energy efficiency standards). Some of us still remember U.S. President Jimmy Carter asking us to save energy by putting on a cardigan and turning down the thermostat.

Suddenly, the idea of efficiency in construction and project management put forward by utilities like BC Hydro was replaced by the idea of energy conservation as both an environmental and economic virtue.

The age of stagnation and misinformation

Like Jimmy Carter, many of the initiatives put into place as a response to the energy crisis failed to get traction. And like Carter, they were 'voted' out.

Punk rock, a music movement in revolt against out-of-touch politicians and institutions, was drowned out by our lust for the good life and all its material rewards. And energy efficiency was eclipsed by excess in the latter '80s and '90s, with the rise of McMansions, massive glass office buildings and the Hummer, icons to the me-first movement.

The news wasn't all bad. Consistent energy standards and practices were slowly being put into place, leading to the launch of highly visible second generation conservation agencies like Power Smart.

Al Gore, the hockey stick, and the rebirth of conservation

Hurricane Katrina brought environmental devastation to our backyard, an event climate scientists said would reoccur because of human-caused climate change.

Meanwhile, our addiction to consumption was called into question as business scandals like Enron exposed the dark side of greed. And finally, there was Al Gore, The Inconvenient Truth, and the hockey stick graph of escalating climate change.

Gore offered few solutions in his explosive film. But energy conservation (in the form of the new, quirky CFL light bulb was put forward as a step in the right direction.

Not unexpectedly, organizations like Power Smart saw a tremendous upswing in awareness, and an expanded mandate.

So here we stand, 40 years of conservation later. British Columbians are now saving the equivalent amount of electricity to meet the annual needs of more than 440,000 homes.

BC Hydro still sees conservation as the first and best way to help meet growing energy demand in B.C., and reducing energy waste is now a priority among most British Columbians.

What does the future hold? Bet on conservation becoming more about innovation than sacrifice.

Thanks to blinding technological progress, we are seeing energy conservation innovation become both sexy and mainstream.

The future looks as bright as an LED chandelier, you might say.

Marc Stoiber is a Vancouver-based writer and speaker with a special focus on sustainability issues.