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Sergio Marchi, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Electricity Association.Rafal Gerszak

Sergio Marchi, former Liberal cabinet minister under prime minister Jean Chrétien and Canadian ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva, returned to work in Ottawa in February after more than a decade abroad. In his new job as president of the Canadian Electricity Association, a national body representing the industry, he spoke recently at the Vancouver Board of Trade. In a later interview, Mr. Marchi talked about power, politics and the environment.

In B.C., 90 per cent of our power comes from hydro, but in other provinces, Alberta for example, a lot comes from burning coal. Shouldn't all governments be thinking about getting out of that business?

I think they have made that decision because right now, nationally, we have gone down to 15 per cent [of power generated by coal] and that was a considerably progressive movement. By comparison, for example, in the U.S., nationally, coal [power] is roughly at 40 per cent. So when you look at what we're doing and you compare it to our neighbour, I think we're in a good position vis-à-vis cleaner air and healthier air. … We're going to retire 70 per cent of the [remaining] coal burning plants by 2030 … I think that's a good record, keeping in mind that when you do these sorts of things you don't try to do a revolution economically speaking, you try to do an evolution. The next chapter … on the retirement path is also natural gas, because natural gas [use] will go up in terms of filling in that void. The federal government very recently signalled that they are going to be soon Gazetting their notice of regulating natural gas.

What does that mean?

We don't know … We'll have to see what kind of regulations are put on natural gas … and we don't know if it'll happen before the election or after … We hope, again, it's an issue of evolution, not revolution.

Very much on the agenda in B.C. is Site C, a $9-billion project that in some ways seems like a project from the past: a big dam on a big river. It will produce cheap power but will make it difficult for other more environmentally friendly projects, small IPP's, solar, wind, geo-thermal, to prosper.

First, I believe that we in this country need to think big and sometimes also to do big things. I got worried when I came back to Canada and got immersed into energy and social licensing [issues]. I think without question that Canadians in our democracy have every right to be heard, to express themselves and to be engaged. And that goes for any protests. But at some point, once you've made the case, if there are governments that feel it is in the best interest of the country, and after due diligence and debate and engagement, there must be the political will and courage to also make a decision – including saying yes and moving on. … Nation building never stops and never sleeps. I ask myself, though, if the times we're living in now were 30, 40, 50 years ago, would we have built the kind of monumental structures that have given rise to a G7 country with great quality and great benefits?

Wind, geothermal and especially solar are very exciting in the long run but right now, very costly. Are governments doing enough to encourage that technology?

You can always say governments could do more. But when I compare ourselves to the American industry and hear from our CEOs that they are farther ahead in the technology game, that worries me a little bit, because there's no reason we can't be as good as they are. I think we need to be playing in the big leagues. There needs to be more federal-provincial co-operation. Some say the feds are a small player but I had matrix done that shows 36 federal departments or agencies have some impact in electricity. I think that's not a scattered impact. We should consolidate and clarify that. My point is we should be putting together a national energy strategy that many in the industry have been calling for. When you look at the biggest projects our forefathers built, it came from a pan-Canadian view of working together. As naive as that sounds, I think we have to go back to that for some of these big national projects, otherwise it's tough to build the political will and the political courage to say 'yes.'

This Q&A has been edited and condensed.