By: Gillian McEachern Kris Stevens Published on Tue May 28 2013
Ontario’s Green Energy and Green Economy Act turns four this month. And there’s a lot to celebrate.
Just 10 years ago, the province got one-quarter of its electricity from coal, the dirtiest of energy sources. Today that number is approaching zero, and by 2014, Ontario will be the first jurisdiction in the world to have completely eliminated coal-fired electricity.
An impressive 4,500 megawatts (MW) of wind, solar, hydro and bioenergy has come online or is being built, thanks to the act. More than 55,000 small solar MicroFIT projects have been applied for or built for farms, schools, churches, hockey arenas, houses and small business.
More than 31,000 jobs have been created, many of them in the manufacturing sector. A whole new industry exists in Ontario that wasn’t here four years ago, spurring new programs in colleges and universities to train a new generation of problem solvers who can help transition Ontario to a greener, smarter economy. Not bad for a fourth birthday.
Ontario’s leadership in this transition has been bold and vitally important. Hurricanes, droughts and heat waves appear more frequently on the nightly news, reminding us that the world desperately needs more examples like Ontario if we’re to have any chance of preventing dangerous climate change.
Being first means learning a few lessons along the way. With the province looking to strengthen the maturing green energy sector, now is the time for those lessons to be put into practice.
First, there are better ways for communities to participate in and benefit from renewable energy projects. Much of the backlash against wind projects has been stirred up by anti-wind groups fearmongering about non-existent health impacts of wind turbines. That isn’t a reason to back off.
Change that starts with local communities will be better accepted and more sustainable. This means creating more ways for communities to be equitable partners in renewable energy projects, which would enable them to reap more of the benefits. Municipal governments, local distribution companies, farmers and co-ops can be further empowered to participate in the burgeoning renewable energy sector. Local or community ownership of energy projects is picking up momentum: we estimate that two-thirds of the latest round of proposed projects have community participation.
Second, we need to approach the tough conversation about whether there are some places renewable energy projects just shouldn’t go. We don’t need to choose between protecting endangered species habitat or fighting climate change. We can do both.
Third, Ontario needs to show the renewable energy sector that it’s in it for the long haul. This means stability in the process of reviewing projects as well as setting clear, long-term objectives for the transition to cleaner energy. Changes made to the system moving forward shouldn’t pull the rug out from the companies, communities and individuals who’ve played by the rules they were handed.
Right now, there’s nothing in government policy that articulates the province’s vision for renewable energy beyond 2018, and thousands of jobs hang in the balance. If you’re an investor considering whether to move into Ontario, or one of the thousands of workers in the sector, that cliff is daunting. Establishing stable, longer-term targets would give peace of mind to those involved that there will be a continued green energy market.
Finally, the WTO ruling against the domestic content requirements of the act was disappointing, but it doesn’t mean we should back away from supporting good jobs manufacturing renewable energy systems and smart grid solutions. More effort and co-operation is needed to map out an economic development strategy for the sector to ensure that it’s competitive, leading edge, and can harness the growing demand for its products in Ontario and elsewhere. Ontario’s lead is well established, and backing away now risks leaving money and jobs on the table.
Over the next year, Ontario has important decisions to make about where we’ll get our electricity into the future. Compared to risky nuclear energy with its perpetual cost overruns, building a more robust renewable energy sector and harnessing the significant energy savings staring us in the face is the cleanest, lowest cost option for powering Ontario.
The Green Energy and Green Economy Act set the province up as a leader in the emerging global clean energy industry. It’s time to show that we’re in it for the long haul.
Gillian McEachern is campaigns director for Environmental Defence. Kris Stevens is executive director of the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association.