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Raymond Biesinger/The Globe and Mail

When Canadian cleantech boosters talk about the opportunities a low-carbon economy can create, they often have in mind events like Prime Minister Trudeau’s press conference in Saguenay, Quebec, last May.

Flanked by executives from Alcoa and Rio Tinto—the largest aluminum producer in the United States and the world's second-largest aluminum miner, respectively—the Prime Minister announced that the federal and Quebec governments were investing in a joint venture called Elysis, which is building a $188-million research and development facility in Saguenay to smelt aluminum using a new process that entirely eliminates carbon dioxide emissions.

Traditionally, aluminum smelters use blocks of carbon to transform aluminum oxide into pure aluminum through an electrolysis process, which creates 17% of the total emissions in aluminum production. Alcoa's new technology replaces the carbon anode with an inert anode whose only waste product is oxygen. “This could be the biggest advance in aluminum production in 130 years,” the Washington Post raved in a headline.

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The other headlines the announcement generated, however, tended to focus on another detail—that Apple was investing $13 million in Elysis. Aluminum is a significant component in most Apple devices, and the company is increasingly willing to pay a premium for lower-carbon aluminum. But the Apple hype hid a crucial detail about why Elysis was being launched in Quebec: It wasn’t just the government money or Saguenay’s cluster of aluminum smelters; it was Hydro-Québec’s low-cost, emissions-free electricity grid. The majority of aluminum’s carbon footprint, after all, comes from the smelter’s voracious use of electricity. Green-minded customers like Apple are chasing lower emissions, and hydro-rich regions like Quebec can deliver clean electricity for a better price than anywhere else in North America.

This, then, is a good news story about cleantech development, pointing to an enormous emerging strategic advantage for the Canadian economy. The only problem is it's too rarely told. And when it is, the most important detail—Canada's abundance of clean electricity—tends to get buried.

So here's a statistic that might surprise you: The proportion of Canada's total electricity production that is drawn from non-emitting sources is 81%. It surprised me when I first heard it, and I'm immersed in energy policy every day. That's because even energy wonks rarely discuss Canadian energy in national terms. We talk about Ontario's grid or British Columbia's carbon tax or Alberta's coal phase-out—all of which only amplifies our interprovincial squabbles over energy projects and emissions reductions.

The absurdity of this provincial infighting is worth underscoring. In this environment, a Quebecois electrician who moves to Fort McMurray, where the carbon footprint per capita is high, transforms from hero to villain, while a Calgary oil executive can send her kid to McGill and mint a model green citizen overnight. None of this says anything about Canada's overall progress on reducing emissions, and it obscures the impressive facts about our electricity profile at a national scale.

Contrast this well-kept secret with the breathless headlines about “climate leadership” that greeted the state of California last year when it announced its “boldest energy target yet"—a plan to draw 60% of its power from non-emitting sources by 2030, en route to 100% clean electricity by 2045. To be fair, California is promising a big new push into “true” renewable sources like wind and solar, while Canada continues to ride the clean waves of hydro and nuclear infrastructure built generations ago. Still, in a marketplace where pacesetters like Apple increasingly reward green jurisdictions, it’s an oversight verging on negligence that Canada’s energy brand isn’t immediately associated with emissions free power.

The opportunity for economies that take the lead in this global energy transition remains enormous. Cleantech is already a multitrillion-dollar industry, fastgrowing and dynamic—and the real decarbonization push has barely begun. This is big business not just for innovative clean energy startups but for conventional industries in Canada's resource sectors and beyond. Notwithstanding the headlines about Apple's small stake in Elysis, the joint venture was actually driven by two world-leading conventional aluminum companies.

The strategic advantage represented by clean grids is already well understood in certain regions of the country, of course.

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Hydro-Québec's website, for example, invites the world's data centres to “join the clean energy revolution,” touting emissions per kilowatt-hour that are lower than both Norway and Sweden, along with existing business relationships with Google, Amazon and Apple. When Gervais Jacques, the managing director of Rio Tinto's Atlantic operations, recently discussed his company's $6-billion upgrade of an aluminum smelter in Kitimat, British Columbia, he bragged as much about lowering emissions as he did about the low price of the hydro power. “We are already starting to see our customers' customers become more discerning than ever,” Jacques said. “They want to know where and how products are made and what impact they have on the environment.”

At the national level, however, Canada's energy conversation remains mired in a regional blame game, set against an international stage that rarely notices anything other than the rising emissions in Alberta's oil sands. To be fair, the average Canadian carbon footprint is among the world's largest, owing to high demand for transport and heating, along with a reliance on energy-hungry resource industries. There's a lot of hard work to be done before Canadians will be able to brag unequivocally about their climate virtues.

Still, behavioural science tells us it's easier to motivate a group toward an ambitious goal if they see themselves as possessing a head start in a game they're naturally skilled at. Spreading the word that our national grid is a green asset that most of the world can only look upon with envy would be a great way to reboot the national climate mission—and pursue a larger slice of the global cleantech pie.

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