David Boyd is an environmental lawyer, adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and author of The Optimistic Environmentalist.
Where is the love for renewable energy in this election campaign? While the rest of the world is engaged in the greatest energy revolution since humans began burning coal, Canada's would-be prime ministers have been stuck in the past, debating pipelines, oil tankers and the oil sands. The economic opportunities offered by this transformation are almost unfathomably immense, measured in the tens of trillions of dollars.
Renewable energy reached a tipping point globally in 2012, when, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, renewables added more capacity to the global electricity grid than nuclear and fossil fuels. The years 2013 and 2014 proved that this is a trend, not a blip.
Across the globe, renewable sources of electricity are growing at a dizzying rate. For example, the total amount of installed solar electricity generating capacity is 200 times higher than it was in 2000, and will be 500 times higher by 2020.
Despite the fact that Canada is blessed with extraordinary renewable energy resources, the Conservative government has focused myopically on oil, gas and coal for the past decade. Major initiatives introduced by the previous Liberal government to promote investment in renewables were eliminated.
Surprisingly, Canada is not that far behind world leaders in clean energy. Almost 70 per cent of the electricity produced in Canada comes from renewable sources, although this figure is dominated by large hydroelectric facilities. While big dams have big ecological impacts, these pale in comparison to the adverse consequences of burning coal, oil and natural gas. Although 70 per cent isn't a bad start, it places Canada well behind leading countries such as Norway, Iceland and Costa Rica, all of which generate 99 per cent of their electricity from renewables. But imagine what Canada could achieve with a federal government whose laws, policies and priorities supported renewable energy with the same fervour shown toward oil and gas.
The wind and solar industries are flourishing in parts of Canada with more environmentally enlightened provincial governments. Canada is in the top 10 countries globally in harnessing the wind to generate electricity. The rate of growth has been dramatic. In 1997, Canada had just 23 megawatts (MW) of installed wind capacity. By 2015, that figure had skyrocketed past 10,000 MW. And we have tapped only a small fraction of this country's tremendous wind potential.
Solar power is also growing exponentially in Canada. In 2003, Canada had 12 MW of installed solar photovoltaic capacity. By 2015, that figure was more than 100 times higher, largely due to Ontario's Green Energy Act, modelled after successful policies in Germany and Japan. Ontario has attracted billions of dollars in new investment, created tens of thousands of jobs in clean energy, improved air quality and slashed greenhouse gas emissions.
In contrast to the good news about wind and solar, Canada has an embarrassing record on geothermal power. Using hot water from underground to generate electricity is not only clean and renewable but produces energy 24 hours a day, unlike intermittent wind and solar. Although Canada has tremendous geothermal resources, there is not a single geothermal power plant operating here. Capital costs are high, but that has not stopped the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Kenya, the Philippines and other countries from harnessing geothermal.
The extensive benefits of shifting toward renewables were reinforced by a major research project that studied delays and cost overruns for hundreds of major electricity projects in 57 countries from 1936 to 2014. The study found that nuclear, fossil fuel and large hydro projects routinely faced major delays and went way over budget.
The International Energy Agency recently estimated that it would cost $44-trillion (U.S.) to switch the global energy system to 100-per-cent renewables by 2050, but that it would save $115-trillion in fuel costs – for a net savings of $71-trillion. This shift would also prevent millions of premature deaths and tens of millions of illnesses caused by air pollution, and diminish conflicts over increasingly scarce fossil fuel resources. When the health and environmental externalities of fossil fuels are taken into consideration, the economic rationale for rapidly switching to a renewable energy system is irrefutable. As Adnan Amin, head of the International Renewable Energy Agency, said earlier this year, "it has never been cheaper to avoid dangerous climate change, create jobs, reduce fuel import bills and future-proof our energy system with renewables."
Experts agree that Canada has the potential to generate 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources, not by 2100 (as Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently pledged) but within the span of one or two decades. Our next prime minister should spur Canada to become a clean energy superpower instead of a fossil fuel dinosaur.