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Here are a few recent headlines about “energy.” From The Globe and Mail: “Proper Use For Energy Sector’s Excess Cash Should Be Cleaning Up Wells.” From an Alberta government press release: “Promoting Alberta’s Energy Industry In The U.S.”

What the headlines have in common is that when they say “energy” they mean fossil fuels – especially oil and natural gas. That’s long been the accepted shorthand. Many oil and gas companies have “energy” in their name. And at the International Energy Agency, or IEA, the “E” really should have been an “O.” It was founded after the 1973 oil crisis, and for decades its focus was oil.

But the future is going to require all kinds of energy – solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, bioenergy (and yes, fossil fuels too). Even the formerly oil-centric IEA has shifted; last May, it issued a landmark road map to net zero by 2050.

It’s time for Canada to redefine “energy.” It may seem pedantic but words matter. Canada is a leader in many forms of energy, but one is prioritized by daily language, elevating one fuel as synonymous with energy. This narrow focus shapes investments, public policy and thought. This page supported Ottawa buying the Trans Mountain oil pipeline, but however necessary that may have been, it is a (very expensive) focus on just one type of power. If Canada believes in a broad definition of “energy” – and to limit climate heating, we must – then its meaning has to expand beyond fossil fuels.

Electricity generation will be key. Canada already has one of the world’s cleanest grids – 83 per cent from clean sources. Hydro delivers 61 per cent. Nuclear is at 15 per cent, wind at 5 per cent and biomass and solar combine for a bit less than 2 per cent. The remaining 17 per cent comes mostly from natural gas and coal.

The challenge is twofold. The federal Liberals in the fall election promised net zero emissions from electricity by 2035; that means getting off coal, a process well under way, but also natural gas. The second challenge is bigger. Canada will need a lot more electricity, as transportation goes green by going electric. Clean Energy Canada estimates the country will need to double power output by 2050.

Canada has a natural advantage in fossil fuels – but also in other forms of energy. A recent report in Nature put Canada near the top among countries for the capacity of solar and wind to power our future needs. And Natural Resources Canada says the best solar potential is on the Prairies, where coal and gas must be displaced.

Redefining energy means governments promoting clean energy with the same gusto as oil and gas. Canada’s largest solar farm is being built in Alberta, for $700-million, financed by investors from Denmark. That helped draw in investment from Amazon, which is building a new data centre in Calgary that will buy power from the solar farm. Yet the government of Alberta didn’t even mention solar when it heralded the Amazon news.

Clean energy is good business. The CEO of ARC Financial, an oil and gas investor with an interest in green energy, predicts a “substantial portion” of Calgary’s empty office space could be filled by the emerging sector. A study for Calgary and Edmonton’s economic development groups said clean tech could add 170,000 jobs over the next three decades.

Oil and gas are remarkable forms of energy. They propel cars, heat homes, power factories. They have also enriched Canadians. But they come with serious environmental costs. Producing and processing oil and gas accounts for 26 per cent of Canada’s climate-heating emissions, with most of the rest coming from using those fossil fuels. That has to change, and it can.

The global trends are clear. In 2021, sales of electric vehicles doubled, to 10 per cent of new cars. In 2020, more than 80 per cent of new power generation capacity was renewables – much of it cheaper than fossil fuels. The IEA predicts renewables will account for almost all new power built over the next five years, with solar leading the way.

Canada has long been wealthy in energy, and will continue to be. Fossil fuels were the cornerstone, which is why they became synonymous with “energy.” But it’s time to redefine the term. Canada has vast resources beyond oil and gas. When we say energy, we need to also see solar, water, wind and, yes, uranium. They’re right there. We just have to tap them.

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