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Canada Special: Last Word - Who will lead on renewable energy?

The year 2008 was a tipping point for global investment in wind energy and other low-impact, renewable power sources. The United Nations reported that more money was invested globally last year in new renewable power sources than in coal and natural gas combined. But while other countries make investments in a clean energy future, Canada's federal government remains uncommitted.

A federal election is widely expected in Canada within the next 12 months, and elections are always an opportunity for issues to gain public awareness. Wind energy could become a wedge issue for a party willing to champion Canada's opportunity to join the global clean energy future. Neither of Canada's two largest parties has yet staked out this territory, but if a race to the top occurs, Canada could not only match other countries' efforts, but also build a wind energy framework aligned with the scale of our resource.

Despite the economic downturn that has slowed most industries, major commitments to renewable power are still being made in 2009. The United States overtook Germany last year to become the world's largest wind energy market (Windpower Monthly, March 2009), and President Obama announced billions of dollars of renewable investments in his stimulus package. In Ontario, the recently passed Green Energy Act ushered in North America's first full-scale feed-in tariff (page 11).

Unfortunately, Canada has little to celebrate at a national level. Our stimulus package ignored wind energy altogether, and on a per-person basis the United States outspent us on government investments in renewable energy, especially wind, by 14 to 1. Even worse, Canada's major national incentive program, ecoEnergy for Renewable Power, was not renewed in the last federal budget. It is set to exhaust its available funds this fall, almost a year and a half ahead of schedule. Wind energy makes up about 75% of the generation subsidised by ecoEnergy since its inception.

Coupled with increasing local concerns and issues about access to electricity grids, the lack of federal investment sent a chill through wind energy developers and investors in Canada. The irony is that Canada has an incredible wind resource, a significant carbon footprint from electricity generation and a national target to run on 90% carbon-free power by 2020.

The federal government's lack of interest has puzzled and frustrated many of us advocating for the expansion of wind power in Canada. Numerous projects could very quickly generate significant employment and expand opportunities to manufacture wind turbine components here in Canada. Rather than giving up hope of influencing federal policy we need to re-ignite our collective energy of what might be possible. We cannot give up on working with the federal government. The United Nations will meet to negotiate climate policy in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December. It will be a world stage for countries to show off their actions to tackle global warming. For Canada to attend this meeting without some concrete domestic effort to advance renewable energy would be an embarrassment. It would undermine any credibility Canada might seek in the negotiations.

Ontario's Green Energy Act has helped set the bar fairly high for the federal government to be recognised as making a meaningful contribution. With Ontario guaranteeing C$0.135/kWh for onshore wind energy projects, the federal government needs to entice other provinces and territories to at least match that level of ambition. This magnitude of wind energy s cale-up in Canada will require not only fiscal incentives but also policy stability. We need longer-term strategic investments in training, provincial interconnections and a commitment to fostering the potential for a clean energy future in the public's imagination.

Given the looming federal election in Canada, we believe some form of federal policy support for renewable power will re-emerge this fall. The question is whether the effort will be of the scale required for Canada to become competitive. Remaining rudderless while the rest of the world ramps up investments in clean energy is almost unthinkable. But who will seize the opportunity at hand to win the economic and environmental prizes that are available?

By invitation Dr. Marlo Raynolds & Tim Weis Executive Director & Director of Renewable Energy Policy, Pembina Institute.

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