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Where is Canada's (clean) energy strategy?


Premiers have been working on collaborative energy strategies in one form or another since 2007, and their energy conversation now looks like it’s poised to continue for another year. But despite its frequent appearance on the Council of the Federation’s agenda, it’s fair to ask why Canada needs a national strategy for energy at all.

Any kind of Canada-wide “strategy” risks sounding like more talk than action. And with Canada often described as an energy powerhouse — boasting not just the world’s third largest oil reserves but the world’s third largest hydropower generation capacity — what would a strategy add that we’re not already doing?

Here’s why we think Canada needs a national energy roadmap.

Canadians know that energy matters to our country. The energy decisions we make today have significant economic and environmental implications, and we will feel their effects for decades. We also know our national picture is — to put it gently — complicated. Canada’s constitution gives ownership of resources like oil and gas to provinces, which also decide how to generate the electricity that powers our homes and businesses. But today, Canada’s provinces have radically different energy strengths and priorities.

Meanwhile, our federal government has been a booster of oil sands exports, but also bears responsibility for curbing carbon pollution in line with the national climate target it adopted.  As long as we lack a Canada-wide vision of the kind of energy future we want, we have no choice but to keep figuring it out (or, more accurately, fighting it out) project-by-project.

As long as Canadians don’t see the upside for them, or have a sense of how a project fits into a bigger picture they agree with, public support for new energy development will continue to be scarce — or fragmented region-by-region. That’s true for fossil-fuel proposals like the Northern Gateway pipeline, but it’s true for wind farms in rural Ontario too.

And as long as we don’t know where we want to be three or four decades from now, we’ll struggle to make the right decisions about proposals whose lifespans go out to 2050 and beyond.

While Canada’s fossil fuel and large hydro resources are not evenly distributed, all of Canada’s jurisdictions have opportunities to develop clean technologies like wind and solar power. As highlighted by the National Roundtable on Environment and the Economy in its 2012 report, Framing the Future, Canada’s low-carbon strengths and opportunities truly run from coast to coast to coast.

But to seize these opportunities in a coherent and coordinated way, we need a national vision and strategy.

At Clean Energy Canada, we’re not alone in believing that Canada really needs a strong and effective energy strategy. So do the Alberta Federation of Labour, the First Nations Energy and Mining Council, and the Canadian Council of Imams. And, albeit for quite different reasons, so do most of Canada’s energy industry associations.

We all know a good strategy when we see one. A strategy that works needs specific goals with deadlines, practical plans to achieve them, and dedicated teams with the resources to push new initiatives forward. This particular strategy should also set up an ongoing conversation: premiers are going to need to keep working together on climate and clean energy for a very long time.

Premiers can look to their own history at the Council of the Federation to find instances of serious, collaborative work that actually changed things on the ground. For example, as of 2014, joint negotiations allowed premiers to cut the prices they pay for 10 commonly-used generic pharmaceutical drugs, saving their healthcare plans $150 million a year.

Canada’s premiers published their first collective energy strategy in 2007, and decided to update it in 2012. During the years that premiers have been considering our energy future, the global clean energy sector has picked up momentum at an astonishing rate. From 2008 to 2012, the price of a solar power module fell by 80 percent, helping spur more than $250 billion in global clean energy investment in 2013. According to Analytica Advisors, Canada has 700-plus clean technology companies today that together generate more than $11 billion in revenues—one percent of the global marketplace.

It’s clear that any credible Canadian energy strategy needs to start by acknowledging that our energy future is going to look really different than our energy past.

Heading into this week’s Council of the Federation meeting, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, whose province already trades clean energy with the U.S., said it’s time for the energy strategy to move from talk to action: “what I’m looking for is that we move forward on some very specific initiatives.”

We at Clean Energy Canada agree.

The Canadian energy strategy should become the home for clean energy initiatives that premiers work together to deliver—ideally with more partnership from Ottawa. Here are three areas that would make a difference for tackling climate change and speeding up the deployment of clean energy in Canada:

  • New investment in transmission lines and smart grids to supply clean energy across Canada, and allow for increased clean power exports to the United States
  • Stronger policies, and incentives, along with infrastructure investment, to spur the use of electric vehicles in Canada, and
  • A more coherent approach to pricing carbon pollution. Some provinces are already among North America’s leaders in carbon pricing, while others are still thinking about how to start charging for pollution. With Ottawa missing in action on carbon pricing, provincial coordination is currently our best shot at laying the foundation for a national approach to making polluters pay.

We’ll be watching this week, and in the months ahead, to see just what premiers do with the opportunity they’ve created.

Clare Demerse is a Broadbent Policy Fellow and Senior Policy Advisor at Clean Energy Canada . This post originally appeared at Clean Enrergy Canada's blog.

Photo: Shannonpatrick17. Used under a creative commons BY-NC-2.0 license.