Has clean energy’s time finally come in Canada?

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Photo credit: 1010 via Flickr.
By Derek Leahy
Federal and provincial climate policies unveiled over the last year are paving the way for Canada to massively increase the amount of energy the country gets from renewable sources, according to a new analysis released today by Clean Energy Canada.
“For the first time the federal government and the provinces are working together to establish a national climate plan,” Dan Woynillowicz, policy director at Clean Energy Canada, said. “A big piece of the puzzle is not just cleaning up the grid, but electrifying other parts of the economy reliant on fossil fuels.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is drafting a ‘pan-Canadian clean growth and climate change framework’ to be released this fall. Meantime, last year Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada’s main oil and gas producing provinces, set ambitious renewable energy targets. And Ontario recently announced one of the most cutting edge greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction plans in Canada to date.
All of that means things are finally looking up for clean energy in Canada. Federal and provincial politicians now need to make good on their climate pledges for the country to reap even bigger benefits from this $500 billion global industry.
“There’s never been a greater opportunity to move forward on this file for Canada. There is certainly reason for optimism,” Robert Hornung, president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association, told DeSmog Canada.
“We are in a unique moment in time. Not just the federal government, but Ontario, B.C., Quebec, and Alberta have all expressed climate change as a priority,” Hornung said.
Clean Energy Canada says the renewable energy challenge facing Canada right now is different from other heavy greenhouse gas emitting countries like China or the U.S. Nearly 80 per cent of all Canadian electricity comes from non-GHG emitting sources (including nuclear power), three-quarters of which is hydroelectricity.
In the United States, on the other hand, fossil fuels produce close to 70 per cent of the country’s electricity.
“We have a comparative advantage in Canada because our grid is already pretty clean,” Woynillowicz told me. “Canada is in an enviable position.”  
While other countries are focused on switching their electricity base from fossil fuels to clean energy, Canada has a different challenge. Sectors heavily dependent on fossil fuels  — oil and gas, transportation, and industrial processes — have hardly any renewable energy in the mix at the moment.
That means to reduce emissions Canada needs to do things like shift to electric vehicles and efficient electric-based home heating systems (like air and ground source heat pumps).
“Clean electricity is one of the best tools to fight climate change,” Clean Energy Canada’s executive director Merran Smith told me. “As we shift to power our economy by clean electricity there will be an increase in demand for electricity and we need that to be clean electricity.”
In B.C., that raises the specter of the controversial Site C dam, but even with an increased demand for electricity in the future (demand in B.C. has been flat for the past 10 years), Site C isn’t necessarily the best solution according to Smith.
“From an economic perspective, Site C is concerning because the cost of renewables like wind and solar power have been dropping dramatically,” she said.
“In the U.S. the price of solar has dropped 80 per cent over last six years and the price of wind has dropped 60 per cent over the last six years. As the cost of those keep going down, that makes them attractive — whereas eight of the last 10 hydro projects built globally have gone over budget.”
A new report released by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) found that wind and solar will be the cheapest ways of producing electricity in many countries during the 2020s and in most of the world in the 2030s.
“The good news for B.C. is we already have so much large hydro, we really can add intermittent renewables on easily because we already have the large hydro that acts as a battery and acts as storage,” Smith said.
“We could build solar and wind in 100 megawatt units as we need it in rural communities. It could create work around the province. And we could bring it on line as we need it. So a decade from now when we need another 100 MW, it will be even cheaper.
Woynillowicz sees the emerging national climate framework as the space to address how to power more of the Canadian economy with renewable energy.
“That’s the place to articulate a clear priority of electrification and establish renewable energy targets,” Woynillowicz said. “It will change the conversation around climate away from where jobs are going to be lost to what we are going to create and build.”
Studies have shown the two pillars to decarbonizing any industrialized economy are to first transition completely to non-GHG emitting electrical generation and then run the economy off this clean electricity.
Clean Energy Canada’s analysis highlights energy storage and electricity sharing between provinces as areas where Canada is starting to break ground in electrifying the economy. In regards to the latter, Hornung would like to see more happen politically.
“What the federal government could do is provide a platform for provinces and territories to talk about the shared challenges they face in optimizing their electricity systems and enable collaborative relationships,” Hornung told me.
Hornung points out more renewable energy is sold to the United States than shared between provinces right now.
Ontario and Quebec, and Alberta and Manitoba have all signed separate memorandums of understanding to take steps toward integrating their electrical grids.
In a report released in February, Clean Energy Canada warned Canada was falling behind its peers on the international stage in terms of renewable energy investments. At the time, it was estimated clean energy investments in Canada had dropped by a whooping 46 per cent, while they increased in the U.S., China, India and the United Kingdom.
However, when analysts with Clean Energy Canada took a deeper dive into the numbers for this latest report, they uncovered the decrease in investments was only 15 per cent when accounting for all clean energy projects, making 2015 the second biggest year for renewable energy investments in Canada.
Meantime, the country’s installed clean energy capacity grew by four per cent last year despite that drop in investment dollars, which the think tank concludes was likely due to policy uncertainty.
Smith noted that an increased price on carbon is needed to level the playing field.

“Right now fossil fuels are getting a free ride for their pollution,” Smith said. “Clean energy is the future. This train is going in one direction and that’s off of fossil fuels and onto clean energy.”

This was first published on DeSmog Canada.

Derek grew up in the sleepy little town of Brooklin, Ontario in Canada.  After his experience as a backpacker in Copenhagen, Denmark during the UN Climate Change Summit in 2009, Derek decided it was the time he stood up for the planet. Shortly thereafter he created International Stop the Tar Sands Day (international rallies to raise awareness about the destructiveness of the tar sands)  and plans on continuing to raise awareness about the tar sands and the need to act upon climate change this decade in the years to come.

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