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Other Countries Have Jumped Headlong Into Solar Energy. Canada Should, Too

It is a smart choice because solar is super-abundant, clean and can generate jobs.

10/04/2017 16:54 EDT | Updated 10/04/2017 17:05 EDT
China Stringer Network / Reuters
Workers walk past solar panels and wind turbines (rear) at a newly-built power plant in Hami, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, Sept. 17, 2015.

The Paris Agreement of 2016 requires countries to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Canada is an alliance partner of an ambitious coalition along with dozens of countries that pledged to intensify decarbonization efforts.

For quite a long time now, we have been listening to the voices from the government about GHG reductions while making no significant efforts to keep the promise we made to the international community. Here in Canada, we are certainly not as ambitious as India and China are in cleaning up the way we generate energy. The Canadian government is sending deeply mixed signals about the future of the country's heavily polluting oilsands industry.

Canada's GHG emissions are growing year on year, primarily due to increased emissions from mining and upstream oil and gas production as well as transport. We ought to prioritize building our economy in ways that don't involve fossil fuels. It is time for Canada to take on a major mission of a great magnitude towards a zero-carbon future. It is the time that we learn from successes of those countries who are aggressively implementing clean energy.

Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Oil is refined at a Syncrude Canada Ltd. mining site near Fort McMurray, Alta., on Aug. 13, 2013.

In the summer of 2013, I visited a major city in south India, Coimbatore, usually referred to as Manchester due to its vast textile industry, fed by the surrounding cotton fields. The day I reached Coimbatore, the temperature was around 38 degrees Celsius. It was a scorching day, and I checked into a hotel. Suddenly during the night, the AC stopped working, and I called reception to find out what the problem was.

The receptionist told me that it was a power cut and advised me not to worry as they are going to start the generator. Next day, I learned that they have long hours of power cut during the daytime. It was shocking to find out how they use diesel-powered generators as backups that pour vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Here is the scary part: India has enough diesel-powered backup generators to power all of Canada. The grid is powered by coal with significant transmission losses, inefficiently run with power outages all requiring more coal and on top of that, massive numbers of diesel generators are warming the planet even more. There is an urgent need to generate power from cleaner and renewable sources like solar. That is what India is trying to do.

India has enough diesel-powered backup generators to power all of Canada.

This year is a new scenario in Coimbatore. Now, I am in India as a visiting Canadian Queen Elizabeth Advanced Scholar and witnessing this challenging journey India has undertaken. Due to India's massive solar push, the city is seeing an uninterrupted 24/7 power supply coming from 2.5 million solar panels covering an area of 2,500 acres, which, to put it in perspective, is enough space to organize about 500 parallel football matches.

It has a capacity of 648 MW of clean power and provides electricity to 150,000 homes. India is now setting up another solar park in the deserts of Rajasthan that can generate 10,000 MW of solar power. Undoubtedly this plant will be another mega-structure.

India is also witnessing a surge in small-scale private solar companies which are trying to bring light to the 300 million people living without power. There are hundreds of small companies that serve as mini power plants that sell power to about 200 homes.

Amit Dave / Reuters
Workers install photovoltaic solar panels at the Gujarat solar park under construction in Charanka village in Patan district of the western Indian state of Gujarat April 14, 2012.

Those little plants are something like neighbourhood utilities and are not connected to the electricity grid. This brings clean power to villages at an affordable price of just $2 a month. For decades, these villages, if they had power, relied on electricity from dirty sources like coal.

Today, India is taking long and fast strides towards a national goal of becoming one of the world leaders in solar power generation by 2022. That is 175 GW of energy generated from renewable sources. India has also set an ambitious target by 2030 to cut GHG emissions by 35 per cent of 2005 levels.

India's neighbour China also added 30 GW of power in 2016 and enough solar panels to cover roughly three soccer fields every hour.

Even developed economies are achieving great results from clean energy. Germany has 1.7 million solar systems, and they are all owned by citizens. So what we see in Germany is that consumers become producers. Nearly one-third of Germany's electricity comes from clean energy, creating 370,000 jobs. More importantly, carbon emissions are down 22 per cent from 1990 levels.

If both developed and developing countries can achieve such results, then countries like Canada can certainly learn a few things. When Canada's GHG emissions are on the rise, electricity from solar energy could be the smart choice for Canada's zero-carbon future. It is a smart choice because solar is super-abundant, clean and can generate jobs.

We need to admit that our fossil fuel era is ending. We need to educate the Canadian society and build a social movement in favour of solar energy.

According to the Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA), with proper policies in place, by 2020 solar electricity will create approximately 65,000 job-years — a year of work for one person — employing a labour force of about 10,000 people per year, with the majority in construction and manufacturing, followed by operations and maintenance jobs. More importantly, it will displace approximately 1.5 million tonnes of GHG emissions per year, the equivalent of moving 250,000 cars and trucks off the road each year.

The zero-carbon future looks promising. However, it does come with challenges. It is time that we take lessons from those countries who are aggressively implementing clean energy towards a low-carbon future. We need to admit that our fossil fuel era is ending. We need to educate the Canadian society and build a social movement in favour of solar energy. We need to understand that moving from traditional power generation to clean energy makes the Canadian economy stronger. We need to believe that the target of a zero-carbon economy is challenging but ultimately achievable.

Canada has successfully undertaken many challenging missions like launching social security schemes and proved that the country is bold enough to take on another task of great importance. I am very confident that Canada has the potential to do it. But it will require robust and confident leadership.

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