Green Energy and the SaskForward Vision
By Mark Bigland-Pritchard
The author is a Saskatoon-based independent energy consultant, with a background in applied physics and engineering. He is principal researcher for Green Energy Project Saskatchewan, and a core member of Climate Justice Saskatoon. Political views expressed here are his own.
It doesn’t have to be this way
In July, a pipeline broke, and diluted heavy oil leaked into the North Saskatchewan River, threatening the water supply of North Battleford, Prince Albert, James Smith First Nation and others, poisoning traditional First Nations medicine-collecting sites, and creating longterm ecological damage from the toxic constituents of sinking oil deposits. In the aftermath, we discovered that the pipeline in question had not needed to undergo an environmental assessment, that, on average, there have been over 18,000 reported leaks in the province since 1990, and that we have 27 inspectors to check on over 100 thousand kilometres of pipeline. And it’s set some of us wondering how Saskatoon would fare if the newly Trudeau-approved Line 3 (or, for that matter the old pipeline which it replaces) were to rupture close to where it crosses the South Saskatchewan river at the north end of Lake Diefenbaker.
Meanwhile, in the Athabasca basin in the north of the province, traditional Dene and Metis hunting and trapping lands are being segmented and disrupted by an unprecedented level of mineral exploration – mostly for uranium.
At Thunderchild First Nation in 2013, exploration for frackable gas included the desecration of the band’s sundance grounds. For resisting this offence, Marilyn Wapass ended up in prison.
It doesn’t have to be this way. But why is it?
What these events have in common is clear: the overbearing influence of extractive industry in our province, such that it can avoid accountability, threaten health and lives, and ride roughshod over the Treaty rights and the traditional practices and livelihoods of the First People of this territory.
But there is a still larger threat posed by this dominance. Per capita, Saskatchewan emits more greenhouse gases than any other Canadian province or territory (67 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent per person per year), more than 48 out of 50 US states, and more than any nation state worldwide. In Paris just over a year ago, Canada committed to a document which set targeted limits to the extent of average global warming – no more than 2°C, with an ambition to keep it below 1.5°C. There is a global carbon budget attached to each of these limits, which we must not exceed if we are to stay within them.
Let’s pretend for a while that we lived in a fair world where every person was entitled to an equal share of carbon emissions. Saskatchewan’s share for a 2/3 chance of staying below 2°C warming would be about two-and-a-half times our current annual emissions – i.e. we would use up our for-all-time allowance in about two-and-a-half years. It’s even worse for the budget for a 50% chance of staying under 1.5°C warming – we would blow through that in just 14 months. After that, we are in effect stealing from other peoples’ budgets or else driving global temperatures past manageable limits.
And even a 2°C world is a disturbing prospect. According to a recent detailed study,
“The risks posed by extreme heat and potential crop yield reductions in tropical regions in Africa and South-East Asia under a 2° warming are particularly critical given the projected trends in population growth and urbanization in these regions.”
“In conjunction with other development challenges, the impacts of climate change represent a fundamental challenge for regional food security, and may trigger new poverty traps for several countries or populations within countries.”
Together with the predicted increase in drought in the middle east and north Africa, and the impact of rising oceans and storm surges on small island states and low-lying river delta areas, these trends threaten to lead to streams of refugees and more failed states.
Our economic overdependence on resource extraction isn’t just threatening the water and the lands that we should be caring for. It isn’t just threatening our own health. It isn’t just the latest phase of colonialism. It also contributes to a massive, indeed potentially unprecedented, threat to human society globally.
I don’t believe that represents who Saskatchewan people are, deep down. And it doesn’t have to be that way.
But it will be for as long as the corporations rule. For as long as they are allowed to dominate instead of just doing their job of supplying a service in return for fair recompense. For as long as profit is more important than people. For as long as narrow corporate-friendly economic dogma dominates government priorities. For as long as economic “growth” matters more than communities or human health or the earth itself.
But if we want things to be different we need a vision. Only with an inspiring and life-giving vision can we overcome the anxiety and denial which is gripping this province. More accurately, we need lots of peoples’ visions that we can piece together into one big vision.
As an energy consultant, applied physicist and policy researcher, here’s my piece of the jigsaw. This started as a vision for energy provision – but it rapidly became also a vision for good jobs, for an economy under our control, for a better concept of prosperity, and for a more harmonious way of living together:
I see a Saskatchewan in which energy is a servant not a master – where our energy systems are designed for us, instead of the current situation where we have to fit in with the edicts of private corporations and insufficiently accountable Crowns. I see people mostly working close to home, living in comfortable homes which cost next-to-nothing to heat, taking the opportunity to play an active part in managing their energy supply, and using a diverse range of efficient transport options. I see liveable cities, where for most of the things which we need to do we can travel by foot or by bike or by comfortable and efficient public transit.
I see a Saskatchewan where the power of big corporations is reduced because local small business offers many more employment options. I see the housing crisis addressed with state-of-the-art homes. And I see a culture which encourages innovation for the public good.
So how can we work this out? Here are my suggestions.
Let’s start with electricity. Northern European jurisdictions would look with envy at our wind resource, our solar resource, our potential to plan biomass operations which threaten neither food production nor ecosystems.
But it is some of those European countries – especially Denmark and Germany – which have shown us how to make the transition in a way that can benefit everyone. Government in both countries has enabled community ownership of green electricity generation. Often this is through establishment of a local cooperative; more recently Germany has seen the emergence of municipally owned utilities committed to 100% renewables generation. And even when wind and solar were expensive, a system was in place to give those new power generators a virtually- guaranteed financial return. Much has been written in North American media about the supposedly horrendous cost of electricity in Germany – but the reality is that this is not a cause for protest in Germany, and many are enthusiastic about their ability to sell power as well as buying it. (In any case, German householders pay no more for their electricity than we do, even though the retail unit cost is higher – a result of a whole-society endorsement of principles of conservation and efficiency.)
Community ownership means that power becomes democratized – no longer the subject of decision-making by a distant unaccountable body, whether privately or publicly owned. It means that people gain control over another piece of their life. It brings communities together to work on a local project for the common good. It also means good local jobs.
A 2012 study by Blue-Green Canada found that, for the same amount of investment, green energy could create between six and nine times as many jobs as the oil industry. A more recent study from the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts arrives at a more modest figure: two-and-a-half times as many. Already, solar power employs more people in the USA than coal, oil and gas put together. The potential for job creation is phenomenal – provided that we can move fast enough. While most of those jobs will be in installation, consultancy or maintenance, we should be developing manufacturing capacity. South Dakota can attract wind turbine manufacturers, so why not Saskatchewan?
In the period from January 2015 to March 2016, Saskatchewan generated 46% of its power from coal, and another 34% from gas. Over the next two to three decades, both of these fuels need to be phased out – first the coal and then the gas – if we are at all serious about climate change. Looking at the current example of Scotland, and based on my own preliminary modelling, I believe we can achieve that by 2040 – but it will require a determined and consistent programme. The essential technical elements in that programme are deep efficiency measures, rapid renewable power rollout, stronger interconnection with Manitoba, smart-grid development and, towards the end of that period, storage capacity development.
To enable that, we need a series of policy changes:
- A commitment that all new generating capacity ordered by SaskPower will be from renewables.
- Financial mechanisms to decouple SaskPower profits from the number of units of electricity sold – thus strengthening the incentive for demand-side management (SaskPower or government efficiency initiatives).
- Amendment to the Saskatchewan Power Corporation Act, specifying that, in ensuring that power supply adequately meets power demand, new investment should be limited to the following in reducing order of priority: (i) energy efficiency, (ii) community-owned renewables and individual home photovoltaics, (iii) other renewables, (iv) energy from waste and industrial cogeneration. This should be supplemented with investment in whatever mix of other technological approaches (smart grid, power trading, storage) is necessary to ensure and improve grid stability.
- Amendment to the Saskatchewan Power Corporation Act, limiting the SaskPower monopoly by enabling local cooperatively- and municipally-owned generation for public sale. In addition, First Nations reserves, which come under federal rather than provincial law and so should already be able to generate and sell within reserve, should also be permitted to sell off-reserve within Saskatchewan.
- A feed-in tariff scheme, guaranteeing renewables generators (i) priority on the grid, and (ii) stability of price (with a reasonable but not excessive rate of return), with preferential options for First Nations, community-run schemes, cooperatives and municipal projects.
- Agreement with Manitoba Hydro to expand the interprovincial interconnection to 2MW in both directions, so that we can export when wind and solar facilities provide an excess and import hydro power when we have a shortfall from our own generation.
- A decisive shift in the structure of the economy, with active encouragement not only for green energy but also for IT, for high-efficiency manufacturing, for essential services. This should include green power manufacturing facilities in the province. And,at the same time, an end to the expansion of extractive industries, an end to new fossil infrastructure, and a planned quarter-century-long phase-out of fossil fuel production.The last point is perhaps the most important. The rapid growth in demand from energy-intensive mining operations has demanded substantial investment in infrastructure – new power stations and new transmission lines. Because it costs more to generate from a new power station – of whatever sort – than from an old one, this has contributed to the rise in electricity rates. Shifting to renewables will also result in a small short-term price rise – not because renewables are inherently more expensive (they no longer are), but because some fossil plant will be “stranded assets,” closed before the end of its financial life. It is important that we minimize the costs to the consumer of the transition, and this can only realistically be done if new infrastructure costs can be limited.Heating buildings
Energy to heat homes and offices is responsible for only about 3% of our provincial emissions. But this is still an important area to address, for four reasons (besides the climate imperative):
- (i) People on low income need affordable homes. This doesn’t just mean that the rent should be affordable: with electricity prices already rising, and gas prices subject to a volatile market, fuel poverty is a very real future risk if we don’t build to tough energy standards.
- (ii) It enables people to see, in their own lives, what is possible at reasonable cost.
- (iii) The opportunities for job creation in this sector are massive.
- (iv) High-performance buildings don’t just emit less and cost less to run – they are also more comfortable to live in and more pleasant to work in (and corporate Canada is increasingly recognizing that good working conditions lead to higher productivity)
Modern high-performance building need not be expensive – especially if we consider lifetime rather than initial costs.
It’s easiest to act on new-build. It’s a lot cheaper to build in efficiency from the outset. Nearly all wealthy industrialized jurisdictions in the world have energy building codes for new-build. Saskatchewan needs to join them.
Performance-based codes make the most sense – what matters is how much energy a building will use, and how much carbon dioxide it will emit, not whether it is built to some prescribed method. We could start with a requirement for all new buildings to satisfy LEED for Homes or (for office buildings) LEED gold, and gradually ramp up the demands over a decade so that anything being built in the late 2020s meets Passivhaus standard (requiring about 1/10 of the energy of current good-practice construction), provides heating and electricity from renewables, and conforms to the non-energy sections of the LEED standard.
While it could take a decade to fully make the transition in new-build design, the knowledge and methods exist already to build to these high standards. One Passivhaus-compliant project is close to completion in Saskatoon, with others not far behind. With real government support, affordable housing units constructed to this standard could rapidly become the norm, for example in municipal Housing First initiatives.
Existing buildings offer more of a challenge. The incentive programmes offered by previous governments resulted in some improvements, but they were limited in scope and difficult for those on the lowest incomes to take advantage of. A better option – and one which could avoid the need for government funding – would be for longterm financing to be enabled, such that energy savings pay for the monthly payment on the investment. Such a scheme needs to be tied to the property, not the owner, because ownership can change. Toronto is already experimenting with this option, using Local Improvement Charges, following some enabling changes to provincial legislation. Could we do the same here? Or could we achieve the same result through a network of non-profits, or through SaskEnergy?
Such legislation would demand the availability of a skilled workforce. Indeed, tightening codes and retrofit incentives (see reference to carbon pricing below) should offer a degree of employment stability in a traditionally volatile industry. So, as with green power, there will be a need for specialized training for all trades – carpenters, plumbers, electricians and so on. Contractors, architects and engineers will also need new training. But none of this is difficult, and some of it is already being done on a volunteer basis, through mid-career courses and through work experience on energy-efficient new-builds and retrofits.
Transport policy is complex. We travel to local shops, to workplaces, to schools, to appointments, to city centre events, to other communities – and the most pleasant and quickest way to travel may vary according to distance, location and time of day. A good planning strategy will consider this. It will also consider the impact of our travel on others around us. It will ensure that most of us have mainly short distances to travel – and that we can do so safely on foot or by bicycle for much of the time. It will gear public transit to peoples’ needs, making it comfortable, efficient and rapid and giving it road priority over personal vehicles. It will challenge the dominance of the big box stores and the malls.
We also need a shift in the types of vehicles we drive – in the short term towards more efficient models, and in the short to medium term increasingly to electric vehicles. This transformation can be driven by a mixture of positive incentives, federal regulations, SGI differential insurance rates and carbon pricing. It will also require a comprehensive network of electric charging stations.
I’ve said a lot about industry already. While I see the biggest opportunities in diversification, most of the present facilities and infrastructure will stay in place at least for the next couple of decades. Their contribution to our carbon footprint is very substantial – roughly half of the total if their electric demand, transport requirement and fugitive emissions are included. So in addressing climate change we cannot avoid making strong demands on these corporations. A mixture of carbon pricing and low-interest loans should enable substantial energy efficiency improvements, and a mine or factory which decides to shift to renewable power should be rewarded. As with buildings and electricity, investment in energy efficiency provides an opportunity for job creation and for skills development.
Nearly one-fifth of Saskatchewan’s current greenhouse emissions are from venting, flaring and leaks in the oil and gas industry. Other jurisdictions (Norway, Alberta, even North Dakota) have found ways to limit this. Instead of venting and flaring methane, producers should be required to either use it to generate power for their rig or else pipe it into the provincial gas system. And pipelines wouldn’t leak so much if they were subject to environmental assessment at the planning stage and regular inspection once installed.
I have identified a number of measures which can overcome barriers and enable the transition. But there is another that we cannot easily avoid if we are to move fast enough. That is carbon pricing. This must be transparent, publicly accountable and socially just in its financial impacts, which limits us to a couple of carbon tax models, both of which preferably involve charging a fee at each point where fossil fuels enter the economy. Then either return all the proceeds in equal cheques to every citizen and permanent resident aged 16 or over (Fee and Dividend), or else return about half the proceeds in that way, but only to people on lower incomes, and use the other half to fund green infrastructure, business start-ups, etc. In Saskatchewan, some provision needs to be made to protect export-focussed agriculture, but in my estimation that is the only necessary complication.
Kicking the economic addiction
And, finally, we have to recognize that it is necessary to plan for a transition away from economic dependency on oil and gas production. The message from climate science is clear. To exceed the aspirational lower Paris temperature limit or 1.5°C means death or dislocation for millions worldwide; to exceed the higher limit of 2°C means a slow-motion global train wreck. But to stay below even that higher limit requires an end to fossil fuel use, worldwide, by some time around mid-century. (The precise timing depends on a number of things, one of the most important of which is how quickly we in the industrialised world can cut our emissions in the short term.)
Usually when an industry needs to come to an end the workers are left high and dry. That must not happen this time – we have time to plan and to build the industries which can provide good well- paid jobs in green energy and green construction. The initiatives in this direction which have been taken by former Alberta oilpatch workers in establishing Iron and Earth, securing diverse funding and support, and creating multiple retraining and demonstration projects, are impressive. But they are only the beginning, they need to spread across the provincial border to Saskatchewan, and they need active encouragement. Most importantly, both government and civil society need to take up the cause and build the green economy from the ground up. And those workers need time to retrain, and proper recompense through EI while they do so.
If that happens, we can start to build a society based on local autonomy, not the dictates of corporate headquarters. A society where work and community are linked together. A society which practices community cohesion instead of relying on distant commuting. A society where human values matter – health, happiness, community, connectedness with the natural world, and not just profits and “growth.” And a society which is doing its part to avoid climate catastrophe.
A Publishers’ Weekly review of Faultlines, by our own Emily Eaton and Valerie Zink, says this: “Zink and Eaton portray a precarious population with little control over an existence driven by unseen and unaccountable global forces.” It is time we worked to wrest control away from those unaccountable forces and put it back into the hands of the people. We have the technology to do so. We can find the financial resources – not least by making those unaccountable forces pay their fair share. What is needed is the political will.