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Clinging to the carbon economy is a bad business plan for B.C.

We live in such a time-lag world. So much is happening so fast we barely have time to digest the latest data before solutions start flying at us, quickly to be upstaged by an all-new path to an all-new dismal future.

We live in such a time-lag world. So much is happening so fast we barely have time to digest the latest data before solutions start flying at us, quickly to be upstaged by an all-new path to an all-new dismal future.

The Simon Fraser University Centre for Dialogue’s inaugural Renewable Cities Global Learning Forum, coming right after the City of Vancouver council unanimously committed to 100% renewable energy by 2050, wasn’t short on dismal future scenarios, but it was a head-snapper on newly affordable solutions.

Merran Smith, executive director of Clean Energy Canada, told us that the$310 billion invested in renewables in 2014 exceeded investments in fossil fuels.

Many speakers referred to a conference meme: that the cost of solar power is plunging exponentially. Solar is now cheaper than fossil fuel in 30 countries. A watt of power from a silicon photovoltaic cell was $76 in 1977. Today it’s $0.36.

David Renné, International Solar Energy Society president, predicted that 16% of all energy in the world will be solar by 2050. Buoyed by California’s commitment to 50% renewable energy by 2030, Mark Jacobson, director of the atmosphere and energy program at Stanford University, was unabashedly more aspirational. He has mapped out how every country could get to 100% wind, water and solar power by 2050 – at a cost of $0.11 to $0.12 per kilowatt hour.

He thinks the U.S. could get 50% of its power from wind and 45% from solar, with solar power generation on 70% of all roofs. (Vancouver has some work to do, with city fees for hooking up rooftop solar recently ranked as the worst in Canada.)

Meanwhile the Drake Landing neighbourhood in Okotoks, Alberta, has surpassed its five-year goals of getting 90% of its space heat from solar panels that store summer heat in the soil through a district energy system.

This is all on top of efficiencies.

Buildings in Germany now use 11 times less energy than they did 30 years ago, according to Harry Lehmann of the German Federal Environment Agency.

Heating and cooling cities more efficiently can’t come soon enough. “Accelerating the uptake of energy efficiency and renewable energy in the global energy mix is the single biggest contribution to keep global temperature rise under 2C and to reap the multiple benefits of an inclusive green economy,” a United Nations report reminds us. “Cities account for over 70% of global energy use and 40% to 50% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Half of cities’ energy consumption is for heating and cooling.”

Speaking of multiple benefits, Lehmann said renewable energy investments in Germany have generated 380,000 jobs. That’s more than from fossil fuels or nuclear. Plunging costs, pending carbon pricing and the likelihood of stranded carbon assets, are driving an investor craving for renewables that can’t find enough projects to invest in.

“We’re seeing numbers unheard of a few years ago,” said local mining magnate and conference co-sponsor Ross Beaty.

He’s also executive chairman of Alterra Power, the renewable energy company behind B.C.’s largest run-of-river hydro project and largest wind farm.

“There is a tremendous amount of capital available for renewables. We can reliably deliver power for 40 years. The private sector can deliver as much power as BC Hydro quicker and cheaper.

“Every coal company will be finished in the next 10 or so years,” Beaty predicted. “Fossil fuels is a bad industry to invest in.”

Ken Nolan agreed with him.

Nolan is a city power manager in Burlington, Vermont.

“Within a month of [Hurricane] Katrina, the cost of our natural gas tripled. We started making investment decisions based on risk. With renewables, there’s no fuel cost for our supply.”

Citizens, as well as major institutional investors, are clamouring to fund renewables. When the city of Copenhagen crowdfunded shares in its wind turbines, the deal was oversubscribed.

This all sounds so much more promising, vital and profitable than our time-lag policies of clinging to a dying carbon economy. •

Peter Ladner ([email protected]) is a co-founder of Business in Vancouver.