If my business and economics columns over my two decades at The Globe and Mail have had one predominant theme, it is the hollowing out of Corporate Canada.
Through foreign takeovers, deep recessions or inept and feckless management, industry after industry has been gutted. Nortel vanished, and BlackBerry allowed the iPhone to vaporize its global command of the smartphone market. Inco and Falconbrige, which should have joined forces to create a homegrown version of BHP or Anglo American, were picked off by foreign mining companies and turned into branch plants. Bombardier, once the world’s third-largest aerospace company, is busy dismantling itself. The Canadian auto sector is shrinking fast.
Now Canadian oil companies, like all oil companies, are in trouble. Their share prices have fallen by half in the past year, and some of the world’s biggest, among them BP, Shell, Eni and Total, are downgrading their hydrocarbon ambitions as investors shift their affections to renewable-energy plays and governments introduce ambitious carbon-reduction targets. Even China, the world’s top emitter of planet-warming greenhouse gases, sees the end of the fossil fuel era. This week, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the UN General Assembly that his country intends to be carbon neutral by 2060.
Canada has a relatively small but thriving renewable-energy industry. Its share of energy derived from renewables – hydro, wind, biomass, solar, ethanol – is above world and OECD averages.
As the country searches for industries to replace those it has lost, or is busy losing, lunging into renewables would be a smart strategy – not just the production of clean energy but the technologies behind it. Alberta is the obvious province to lead the charge. It has the entrepreneurial spirit, capital, technical know-how and big-project mentality to make a name for itself in the clean-energy revolution.
The question is whether it will remain wedded to the oil sands as the world’s energy markets shift away from hydrocarbons. Ditto for Canada as a whole. Canada might never dominate the renewables industry, but it could make a splash. The alternative is to see Europe and China – especially China – steal the whole show and smother what little clean tech Canada has.
China already has a formidable lead in clean energy, even though it still insists on building new fleets of coal-burning electricity plants. The Economist magazine says Chinese companies produce 72 per cent of the world’s solar modules, 69 per cent of its lithium-ion batteries and 45 per cent of its wind turbines. China also controls much of the mining and refining of the minerals, such as cobalt, that are critical components of clean-energy technology, including Tesla’s electric cars.
China is emerging as an electrostate not just because it wants to clean up its industrial act, to prevent the planet from turning into a crispy piece of solar system bacon, but to create high-paying, high-skill jobs and to ensure energy security.
China is an oil importer and it knows that oil supplies are not dependable. South Sudan is a case in point. China invested heavily in South Sudan oil fields, only to see production fall during the civil war, which broke out in 2013. South Sudan now wants to take over the Chinese-owned oil fields in the country.
“I have always maintained that China is pursuing a green growth economy so vehemently not so much because of climate-change concerns but because the pathway to a fossil-fuel economy is closed off due to both energy and resource geopolitical insecurity,” said China watcher John Mathews, professor emeritus at Sydney’s Macquarie University.
The point is that China is motivated to keep pressing hard on the renewables front and is now adding more power capacity from renewables than from fossil fuels and nuclear. And on the clean-tech front, China is getting little competition from Donald Trump’s America; the President’s pro-hydrocarbon stand – more oil drilling, more coal jobs and lower environmental standards – has formed the centrepiece of his energy policy.
Canada should not view its relatively small size as an obstacle to its technical and industrial clean-energy ambitions. A decade ago, Orsted was Denmark’s main oil and gas producer and supplier of electricity, most of it generated by coal, an inconvenient truth highlighted by the journalists who attended the Copenhagen climate-change summit. Shortly thereafter, Orsted reinvented itself as a clean-energy company and watched its shares take off. Today, it is the world’s largest producer of offshore wind power and is building the first wind farms off the U.S. East Coast.
Italy’s Enel, Europe’s largest utility by market value, has become the No. 1 investor in wind and solar projects in the developing world. Another Italian company, ERG, more or less adopted the same strategy as Orsted. It sold its oil refining business about eight years ago and became the top wind-power company in Italy and one of the biggest in Europe. Its shares also took off as oil equities went in the opposite direction.
The opportunities in renewable energy are endless, from creating the technology that makes the power to launching the companies that can expand overseas, as the Danish and Italian companies have done. Canada needs a new breed of corporate champions to replace the ones it lost or the ones, like oil, that face decline. Clean energy is the obvious – and morally safe – place to start.
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