There is a positive vision emerging of decarbonization through electrification. This would not only substantially reduce climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions, but it would also buoy the economy and provide jobs.
This pandemic can be a turning point. The coronavirus has already augured a 4-7 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions along with other environmental benefits. Although COVID-19 has decimated the energy sector it will disproportionately enfeeble the fossil fuel industry and embolden renewable energy. The pandemic has already changed the way we work and green stimulus spending could revolutionize our economies.
On the afternoon of Thursday, May 28, 2020, experts (Matt Wayland, Sarah Petrevan, and Bruce Lourie) came together to discuss electrification. The online event was titled “Electrifying the Economy: Reducing Carbon While Creating Jobs”, it offered insightful commentary against the backdrop of the coronavirus and economic recovery.
Why is decarbonization important?
Decarbonization is the process of reducing the amount of climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions (like CO2) that we generate and release into the atmosphere. We can achieve decarbonization by electrifying energy, transportation, manufacturing, and industry. This implies transitioning away from the old energy infrastructure and increasing our reliance on clean sources of power including renewables.
A consensus is building that sees decarbonization through electrification is crucial to the future of our economies. All around the world countries are electrifying to reduce their emissions.
Once in a lifetime opportunity
We are faced with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink the way we do things. This is the view of Matt Wayland, the Co-Chair for the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a National Campaign to Promote the Skilled Trades. He has worked with the Canadian office of the IBEW, and the Task Force on a Just Transition. However, Matt also expressed concern that we will miss the opportunity.
Sarah Petrevan is a policy advocate and commentator who currently works at Clean Energy Canada. Sarah is also concerned that we will not capitalize on this opportunity. She pointed out that the current reality has “given us all a bit of a jolt” and she added that this is a chance we will never have again. She said the current situation is an opportunity to put in place the policies and programs that will lay the foundation for a resilient economy.
Bruce Lourie is president of the Ivey Foundation and an adjunct professor who serves on the boards of several organizations. Bruce said that this is a real opportunity that is particularly poignant as we restart the economy after the COVID-19 shutdown.
Jobs and the economy
Electrification offers economic incentives and employment opportunities. Matthew said that electrification is synonymous with job creation. Electrifying our economy will create good-paying career jobs across the country and the continent. This includes jobs in the building, maintaining, and refurbishing of clean energy systems.
Good jobs contribute to the health of the local economies they come from. Sarah explained that clean energy is already cost competitive and these costs will continue to go down as the demand and the supply increase. Bruce made the point that clean energy and electrification are the only way the economy will survive. He encouraged the hiring of people who are underrepresented, this includes women, people from first nations, and new Canadians.
For more information read these two reports on electrification and job creation:
- Final Report by the Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities
- Jobs for Tomorrow: Canada’s Building Trades and Net Zero Emissions
Transportation hydrogen and nuclear
Sarah explained that electrifying the transportation sector will curtail Canada’s second-largest source of emissions, eliminating one-quarter of our emissions while saving money and creating jobs. Canada is also a leader in electric buses. This is a field that is dominated by China which has 82 percent of the global market share. To electrify the transportation sector Canada will need to pay special attention to building out charging infrastructure.
Hydrogen is another transportation solution that is ideal for things like freight transport and trains. Bruce explained that the European Green New Deal includes hydrogen and 82 countries have hydrogen strategies. Although Canada is a hydrogen producer it does not have a hydrogen strategy.
While transportation is important, energy generation is the largest source of emissions. If we are to replace fossil fuels and meet our growing energy needs, all of the above approaches are required. In addition to well-known renewable energy options (solar, wind, geothermal, etc) we cannot afford to exclude nuclear. Matt argued that nuclear has a place in the energy mix and he says that nuclear is clean and can be cost-competitive. He pointed to the fact that Ontario currently derives 60 percent of its energy from nuclear. He also said that nuclear provides jobs and as a uranium mining nation nuclear makes sense in Canada.
Politics and government
Implementing broad spectrum electrification starts with government because without the public sector the private sector will not get on board. Despite ideological resistance from some quarters, government investment in electrification makes sense from a climate, economic, and jobs perspective.
Although many malign conservatives for their resistance to clean energy and electrification Bruce pointed out that we need to differentiate between conservative politicians and conservatives. According to Bruce people understand the need for electrification. The problem is not the people, the problem is conservative politicians. Sarah urged people to send an email to their elected officials telling them to cut pollution, create jobs and build resiliency.
Canada is well-positioned
As Canada continues to grow the country’s energy needs will also grow. We will need to build out a clean energy infrastructure that is 2 to 3 times the current size of our electricity capacity. This will require a smart grid that will enable us to create a more efficient and effective way of delivering energy. To get there Bruce explained that Canadians will need to start thinking of their country as an energy superpower beyond fossil fuels.
Canada is a world leader in reliable, low-cost, clean electricity generation. The country also leads in battery and energy storage. Such technologies are are a critical part of addressing the issue of intermittency (how to provide power when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing). Canada’s hydroelectric prowess positions the nation as an energy storage technology leader. Canada is also uniquely rich in battery manufacturing as its natural resources include all the required raw materials (lithium, graphite cobalt, aluminum, etc). However, as Sarah explained Canada has not yet figured out how to integrate battery technology.
Canada also possesses impressive world-leading technical expertise as well as excellent training, apprenticeship, and ongoing learning programs. Matt pointed out that whether we are talking about renewables or energy storage, Canada has a highly trained and skilled workforce.
Final points and recommendations
Bruce argued for the merits of energy efficiency and energy conservation. He advocated prioritizing investments in building retrofits and he urged Canadians to review what their governments are doing and read their reports. Matt said we need to continue to expand on R&D and we specifically need to review how different energy sources fit together.
It is clear that we need to rethink how we do things because the way we do things now is not getting us where we need to go. There is a need for rural electrification. Canadians will have to deploy distributed energy on a vast scale as local energy production is a quality of life issue for many thousands of people who use generators (eg those in remote northern communities).
We need a public utility model, a shared benefit model, and big system thinking. Although this is easy to imagine it will be difficult to implement. Energy is provincially regulated in Canada and this impedes the implementation of a strong national policy. As in many other countries around the world, Canada will need to find a way of circumventing resistance from those who support the old energy economy.
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Energy Job Losses in the US Due to COVID-19