Is this the best of times? Is this the worst of times? Are we in the age of discovery or hurtling towards a blazing, horrible finish? Basically, it's up to us.
Humanity has been in a search for the "New, New, Thing" pretty much since time started ticking. In short, we are always on the hunt for that tricky pathway to a better future. And this is the case now: We need to find that elusive route to sustainable energy.
The Age of Discovery, the search for the Northwest Passage, the journey to the moon -- were they not all expressions of a collective hope for a better future? Human existence has always been a messy, bloody affair but the world's explorers, inventors and entrepreneurs were keen to find new lands, trade routes and products.
We are a few years into a new millennium and there is an overarching concern about how we power our future. The smart people know our current path is not sustainable. We need new ways to heat our homes, power our cars and fuel our factories. If not, we risk heating our planet to the point of making it unlivable.
But when we talk about a new path people ask, legitimately, "How will we drive our cars? Do we have to live like the Amish?" No offence to the good Amish folks, but what we are advocating is exactly the opposite.
We can't stop driving cars or running our factories or we will have global collapse. Conservation is vital but we need renewable energy so we can continue driving, producing and travelling.
But how the vested oil interests teach their followers to cling to the status quo! Putting aside pollution and global warming, the buying and selling of oil is a compromised and rigged system. Right now the world is awash in oil and economies are slowing, yet crude remains above $100 a barrel. There has got to be a better way.
And there is. Just this week we've been inundated with reports of the stunning growth in solar and wind power. Electric-powered car sales are soaring. (You can see some of those stories here and here).
The cost of solar power has dropped 80 per cent in the past five years, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. A watt of solar power not costs less than a buck, down from about $75 a watt in the late 1970s when the panels started to hit the market.
The U.S., once a laggard, is leading the world in new wind energy installations.
"Wind energy is now the fastest growing source of power in the United States -- representing 43 per cent of all new U.S. electric generation capacity in 2012 and $25 billion in new investment," U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said this week.
Wall Street is realizing renewable energy is where it's at. Consider this analysis from the Financial Times on how solar power could become competitive with conventional electricity:
However, as solar panels become more efficient and vastly cheaper, and household power bills keep rising, analysts at some of the world's largest financial institutions say such a prospect is indeed possible -- and likely to cause profound disruption in the energy industry.
"We're at a point now where demand starts to be driven by cold, hard economics rather than by subsidies and that is a game changer," says Jason Channell of Citigroup.
Let's believe we are now in the new Age of Discovery for Energy. Yes there will be Franklin Expedition style ship wrecks but there will also be Apollo style triumphs, if we keep on keeping on.
Renewable energy projects require time and money to get off the ground. So if Canada intends to expand its green economy, says Robert Hornung, president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association, industry needs to have a sense of the size of the market for renewable for energy that governments want to create. In jurisdictions such as Ontario and Quebec, for instance, he says governments have done a good job of setting targets for the share of renewable energy to incorporate into the mix by 2015. But beyond that point, "the direction [...] is less clear." "It takes time to develop wind energy projects. If you're hoping that a wind energy project is going to be up and running in 2016 or 2017, you need to start working on that project in 2013," he said. "If there's no signal that there's actually going to be a market for these projects nobody is going to start doing that work."
With role models like Denmark and Germany, which have undertaken ambitious renewable energy policies with gusto, Canada needn't reinvent the wheel to become a leader in the green economy. But before looking overseas, environmentalists point to expanding what's already working within our own borders in provinces like Ontario, where the government has pledged to phase out coal energy by 2014 and create 50,000 green economy jobs by 2015. "We need more policies like in Ontario," said Tim Weis, director of renewable energy and efficiency policy at the Pembina Institute, a non-profit think tank based in Calgary. In Ontario, the sector is supported up by a feed-in tariff program that pays guaranteed prices for renewable energy, as well as subsidies for firms that manufacture renewable energy technologies in the province. But Weis says there is a need to develop a "broader and more consistent market" for green technologies. "Ontario is a big market and it's going to do well in terms of developing manufacturing capacity for wind and solar, but what we need is to expand that market to other parts of Canada so we have a bigger domestic market," he said.
What's one of the quickest ways to support the growth of Canada's green economy? Stop subsidizing the production of oil and gas, says Adam Scott, green energy project coordinator at Toronto-based Environmental Defence. At present, he says, subsidies for fossil fuel-producing sources of energy, particularly at the federal level, dwarf support for renewable energy -- which he sees as a major roadblock to advancement. "Everybody complains about why we are subsidizing green energy, but it's because we're trying to level the playing field with all these other subsidized forms of energy," he said. "Subsidizing fossil fuels really has a huge drag on the development of renewable energy." Putting a price on carbon that's consistent and country-wide would also help, says Tim Weis, director of renewable energy and efficiency policy at the Pembina Institute. "We need a market signal that levels the playing field and lets everyone know where we're going on this," he said. "It's pretty important that that happens at a national level so it's well coordinated across the country, and everyone is looking at the same picture."
Improving the energy efficiency of buildings and construction projects tends to be "the poor child" of efforts to grow the green economy, says Tim Weis, director of renewable energy and efficiency policy at the Pembina Institute. But if Canada wants to up game in the green economy arena, he says that must change. "[Improving energy efficiency] pays for itself, it has usually the fastest and the strongest bang for your buck in terms of actually reducing emissions and reducing energy, so it really needs to be at the top of the list," he said. That means developing more initiatives like the federal government's former ecoENERGY Retrofit program, which granted homeowners up to $5,000 to improve the energy efficiency of their homes by installing everything from better insulation to high-efficiency windows. The program expired at the end of last month. Though Weis says that particular program was "fairly successful," he estimates that 90 per cent of the homes in Canada could still benefit from an upgrade. "That's still a big area that we need to be working on nationally," he said.
"[The Conservative government] is always saying that Canada is an energy superpower, but they're very selective in what energy fits that bill," says Adam Scott, green energy project coordinator at Toronto-based Environmental Defence. As he sees it, getting serious about growing Canada's green economy will require federal support for renewable energy, and a national strategy for incorporating wind and solar into the overall energy mix. "Ontario is doing very well, Nova Scotia is developing renewable energy and some of the other provinces are looking at it, but without a national approach, Canadian companies are limited to [what] these local jurisdictions are doing," he said. This concern is shared by Ontario Energy Minister Chris Bentley, who says, "The world is going green." "I would have thought that every government that wants to support jobs and prosperity would want to participate in the green energy economy," he said. "I anxiously await their decision to be part of that in the future."
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