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The future of Canada’s energy security requires the country to continue to build renewable energy projects, such as solar and wind.Getty Images

It’s often stated that Canada’s abundant oil and gas reserves provide energy security. Yet recent geopolitical turmoil – such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – has tested this notion, causing oil and gas prices to surge, fuelling inflation and making Canadians’ lives more costly.

Increasingly, especially given climate change’s existential threat, it’s apparent Canada’s energy-security future involves moving beyond oil and gas.

Renewable energy offers not only a more sustainable path forward; it can reduce the negative impact of geopolitics on energy security, says Nichole Dusyk, senior policy adviser with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

“Switching to renewables won’t get rid of the politics entirely, but one of the things it does do is limit exposure to commodity markets and other geopolitical factors,” she explains.

Ms. Dusyk recently co-authored with Lasse Toft Christensen a 2022 report entitled “Why Canada’s Energy Security Hinges on Renewables,” examining the growing benefits of renewables given that their inputs – largely wind and solar – are free and generally unaffected by the actions of foreign governments or commodity markets. Meanwhile, the report pointed out that natural gas prices have surged to multiyear highs, and gasoline hit a record high in the spring of 2022.

Yet the study also outlined the challenges, notably that Canada must quickly expand renewable energy capacity, particularly to reach the country’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Certainly, politics affects renewables’ growth, given that oil and gas remain a key part of the Canadian economy, especially in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Ms. Dusyk says. Yet a majority of Canadians want governments “to make it so our energy systems no longer contribute to climate change,” she adds.

It’s not just Canadians; governments and businesses globally are increasingly investing in renewables, says Stephen Thomas, clean energy manager at the David Suzuki Foundation.

“Solar, for example, already has more investment globally this year than oil and gas,” he says, pointing to recent data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) showing about US$1-billion is invested daily in solar energy development, or US$382-billion for the year, outpacing oil production investment at US$371-billion.

As well, he adds, about 90 per cent of investment globally in electrical power systems is for renewable projects.

The problem is that not enough of that investment is happening in Canada, Mr. Thomas says. “If we don’t act soon, we will be left behind, and arguably that’s already happening because we’re bogged down by the politics of oil and gas.”

Yet the glass is arguably more than half-full for Canada on its journey toward net zero. As the IISD report notes, 82 per cent of Canada’s electricity grid is supported by non-emitting sources. Most is hydroelectric power, resulting from large public projects that today provide low-cost reliable electricity.

But large-scale projects take decades to complete, says Grant Arnold, president and chief executive officer of BluEarth Renewables in Calgary.

“To quickly scale up to a 100-per-cent clean grid, we’re going to need more wind and solar because we cannot build those massive projects quickly enough,” he says, pointing to BC Hydro’s Site C dam, a massive project under development for decades and still not complete.

Renewable projects’ timelines are measured in years, not decades, Mr. Arnold adds. BluEarth should know, having developed and operated wind, solar, battery storage and small-scale hydroelectric projects in North America for about a decade.

Most importantly, over that span, renewables’ fast growth has led to their costs falling dramatically. “Wind and solar are now the cheapest forms of new energy,” he says, pointing to a 2021 report by Equinor, also cited in the IISD study.

In turn, Canada has seen a recent boom in renewables, Mr. Arnold says. Last year, newly completed renewable projects added 1.8 gigawatts (GW) to Canada’s energy, enough to power about 1.6 million homes for one year, up from 1 GW in 2021, Canadian Renewable Energy Association data show. At the end of 2022, Canada had more than 19 GW of installed renewable energy capacity.

“It is growing at an impressive rate, but we still have quite a bit of work to do,” says Vittoria Bellissimo, president and CEO of the Canadian Renewable Energy Association, also based in Calgary.

While the electrical grid – outside of Alberta and Saskatchewan – is mostly non-emitting, oil and gas still make up 76 per cent of Canada’s energy end use, given these are essential inputs for transportation, industry and heating.

Electrification, as well as geothermal energy for heating and cooling buildings, can and must replace most of fossil fuels’ share, she says. “But we need to accelerate renewables at a pace we haven’t seen.”

That will not be easy given that Canada’s grid capacity must expand between 2.2 to 3.4 times its current capacity, essentially about five gigawatts of new capacity annually until 2050, Canadian Renewable Energy Association research shows.

So far, Canada’s two largest oil and gas-producing provinces – Alberta and Saskatchewan – have actually led the country in growth, accounting for 98 per cent of new renewable capacity added last year, the David Suzuki Foundation’s Mr. Thomas says.

“They’re already leaders,” he says, noting the provinces otherwise generate electricity from natural gas, or, in Saskatchewan, coal.

Again, renewable energy’s increasingly low cost compared with fossil-fuel-derived electricity, especially in Alberta, is “because there is an open electricity market,” Ms. Bellissimo adds.

Yet that growth was put on hold recently.

In August, Alberta’s United Conservative Party government announced that approvals of all new renewable projects would be paused for six months to review various concerns, including their impact on rural and agricultural land.

The announcement came shortly before the federal Liberal government unveiled its Clean Electricity Regulations framework to make Canada’s electrical grid net zero by 2035, which Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has criticized as unrealistic.

“We’re at a particularly political moment right now around energy,” Ms. Dusyk notes.

However, the winds of change are blowing increasingly in a favourable direction for renewables, both politically and economically.

“Regardless of what happens in Canada, the world is transitioning away from fossil fuels,” she says.

“That has largely been prompted by climate-change policies, but it’s also because renewables are increasingly cheaper than other energy, and that is really a tipping point.”

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