TORONTO—This past summer, I spent many hours on the road with my two kids. To keep the peace between two rambunctious boys confined in the backseat of a car, one needs to get a little creative. Gone are the days when Volkswagen Beetles are prevalent enough on the roads to make for an entertaining game of “punch buggy,” so we needed to find something else on the landscape to hunt for.
And we found it: solar panels. Solar panels are now common enough in rural Ontario to keep my kids entertained. This wasn’t the case just a year ago.
Despite the very vocal naysayers who claim that renewable energy is everything from too expensive, too unreliable, too downright dangerous, the reality is that new wind and solar energy projects are getting built, reducing pollution, providing power, making money and creating jobs. And, this is happening the fastest in places where governments have put policies in place to support it.
In 2011 alone, nearly 1,300 MW of wind power were added to Canada’s grid, equivalent to two average-sized polluting coal plants, worth $3.1-billion in investment and 13,000 person-years of employment. The total amount of wind power is set to more than double over the next five years, the majority of this in Ontario and Nova Scotia, provinces that have policies designed to spur renewable energy development.
Canada installed nearly 300 MW of solar power in 2011, creating 5,100 full-time jobs. Between 2008-2011, installed capacity for solar photovoltaic power Canada-wide grew at an annual rate of 147 per cent. The majority of this growth was in Ontario, where the solar industry will more than triple over the next few years producing enough electricity to power over 280,000 homes.
The good news is that as these industries expand, the cost is dropping. While some bemoan the cost of the feed-in-tariff, which pays renewable energy producers a guaranteed price that’s higher than polluting energy producers get, the impact on individual homeowners is small. For example, renewable energy makes up six per cent of a hydro bill in Ontario, while nuclear, coal and gas account for over 90 per cent of it. Because the cost of producing renewable energy has gone down, the province recently lowered the premium paid through the feed-in-tariff, proving that it’s doing exactly what it was designed to.
And, it isn’t as if the fossil fuel industry gets no help. Billions of taxpayer dollars were pumped into the tar sands to make it a viable industry, and to this day, the federal government hands $1.3-billion in subsidies to the oil and gas sector.
So far, what’s happening in Canada is really just a glimpse at the potential of renewable energy. A record $263-billion USD was invested around the globe in clean energy in 2011, up a whopping 600 per cent from 2004 levels. This number is expected to keep growing in years to come, as countries shift to low-polluting energy sources. The International Energy Agency (a rather conservative organization) says renewable energy is now the fastest growing energy sector, despite all the rhetoric in Canada about how we need to ramp up tar sands production to sate the world’s energy needs.
Other countries are far outpacing Canada by taking advantage of this burgeoning industry. The U.S., China and Germany lead the pack, and have the jobs to show for it. For example, China is adding 100,000 clean energy jobs each year and renewable energy already provides 380,000 jobs in Germany. In September, Japan stepped up to the plate and announced that it will invest $470-billion USD in renewable energy and more than double that amount in energy efficiency as a way to wean itself off nuclear energy.
The list could go on and on, but the point is this: while the airwaves may be dominated by people nattering about the supposed problems with renewable energy, states, provinces, entire countries and big business have decided otherwise. It’s an ever-expanding source of our energy within Canada, and growing even faster in other places. But, in order for Canada to be a real player at the global clean energy table, governments need to make policies and investments to help get there. The free-marketeers will lament choosing one form of energy over others, but the fact is that’s what we’ve always done. Governments have paid big time to get the nuclear, hydro and tar sands industries up and running.
And now, it’s less about picking winners and losers in the energy business, but picking between a safe and stable planet or a dangerous and polluted one. The International Energy Agency has warned us that the decisions made over the next few years about our energy infrastructure will determine whether we’re on a path to catastrophic levels of global warming. It’s time to tune out the noise, look around us at what’s already happening on the ground and get on with it.
Maybe soon solar panels will be too ubiquitous to make a fun game for my boys, and we’ll need to move onto something else like outdated cars that still burn gasoline.
Dr. Rick Smith is executive director of Environmental Defence (www.EnvironmentalDefence.ca) and co-author of the bestselling book, Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health.
The views expressed here are his own.
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