Our federal and provincial governments push for Trans-Canada’s Keystone pipeline to bring even more toxic tar-sand oil through the lush southern prairies into the U.S. They push for Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline to the West Coast where tankers going to China will threaten the marine ecology and diminishing fish stocks. Meanwhile, year-by-year, non-toxic renewable energy makes steady gains.
According to the Monthly Energy Review of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, domestic renewable energy production by June 2011 was “significantly greater than that of nuclear power and continues to close in on oil.” During the first half of 2011 renewable energy (biomass, bio-fuels, ground source heat, solar, water and wind) provided 18% more energy than nuclear plants and 80% of the energy that comes from crude oil.
Renewable sources provided 14% of electricity, quickly catching up to the 19% from nuclear, which, despite heavy public subsidies, has lost ground since 2009. (Globally renewable-generated electricity passed nuclear in 2005.) Coal’s share in the U.S. electricity market has also dropped as renewable capacity increases.
Meanwhile, Saskatchewan has an on-again, off-again net-metering program which barely taps renewable sources. It allows small, individual producers to put excess electricity on the Sask Power grid, but provides only credit for this. If you produce what you consume from the grid you won’t have an electrical bill, but “your excess power must be used during your annual billing cycle”. The small producer takes all the risks. The only incentive is a 35% grant on eligible costs up to $35,000 which is administrated by the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) which monitors the program.
The program started in 2007 under the Calvert NDP but was discontinued by the Wall government in 2011, just as it was starting to gain momentum. It’s recently been extended to August 30, 2012, but to qualify, a project registration form must be filed by December 2011. A government program review is underway, with no date of a report. Wall’s government clearly doesn’t want energy policy to be an issue in the November election.
There are now 200 plus small producers in Saskatchewan’s program, mostly generating wind power. Our family has installed a hybrid system of both wind (2.2 KW) and photovoltaic (PV) solar (1.3 KW) to maximize production through all seasons. After four months we’ve produced about 2,000 kWh, close to what we consume. Net-metering however doesn’t promote the conversion to renewables because there’s no incentive to produce more than you consume. While the price of electricity will continue to rise, the pay-back time on the investment is long. After the SRC grant and even if prices double, it will take ten years to recover our costs, disregarding depreciation and maintenance. Our motive for installing renewables was mostly environmental; we cut about 6,000 pounds of carbon a year compared to using electricity from Sask Power’s coal plants.
FEED-IN TARIFFS (FIT)
The conversion from coal must be made province-wide if we are to lower our greenhouse gases, which are the highest in the world (72 tonnes per capita annually, the global average is 4 tonnes). Jurisdictions wanting to encourage the conversion to renewables to help avert a climate crisis have gone way past net-metering and implemented feed-in tariffs (FITs) where small producers are guaranteed a fair price to cover their costs and provide some earnings. This is quickly catching on globally; two billion humans now live in places that have or will soon have feed-in tariffs.
California launched the first FIT called the Interim Standard Offer in 1983-84. It was based on avoided costs of using fossil fuels and favoured large developers. It established 1,200 MW (Mega-Watts) wind capacity, mostly in California’s windy passes and reduced CO2 over the decades. Germany is rightly considered the global pioneer; its first program, in 1991, provided 20-year contracts and was more advanced than California is today. Germany sparked the revolution in renewables in 2000 with its Advanced Renewable Tariff after its decision to phase-out nuclear power. It succeeded because it’s not a “one size fits all”; it differentiates the size and application for each technology. France followed suit in 2001 and Spain in 2004. These three countries set “the gold standard” for renewable energy policy world-wide. By 2008 Germany had 24,000 and Spain had 17,000 MW wind capacity. France, which heavily subsidizes its large nuclear fleet and was more restrictive with its siting policy, had “only” 3,400 MW of wind. Germany is now a world leader in solar energy and Spain is looking at tidal power.
NORTH AMERICA LAGGING
North American has been slower to convert; Ontario now leads all Canadian provinces and U.S. states. Its 2006 Standard Offer Contract had limited success with only 150 MW capacity by 2008. But its 2009 Green Energy Act brought it into the same league as the Europeans. It has social as well as environmental objectives: it favours local control, community economic development and equal economic opportunities. Like Germany it has no regulatory cap and has a diversity of tariffs for different conditions (e.g. off-shore and on-shore). Ontario outranks the timid programs in Vermont, Maine, Wisconsin, California and Oregon. A recent program comparison by Paul Gipe of the World Future Council says Ontario surpasses Spain.
Ontario has awarded over 2,500 MWs of contracts for renewables; one-fifth of these include homeowners, farmers, community and aboriginal groups. This amounts to 70% of our total grid and Saskatchewan has the potential for renewables equal or greater than Ontario’s. With a much smaller land-mass, France has wind capacity equal to our total grid. Even if our existing wind capacity goes through a planned doubling we will still be under 400 KW compared to France’s 3,400. Why are we so far behind?
Thirty years after California’s first program and twenty years after Germany’s, we’ve barely touching the surface. There are some who would call our on-again, off-again net-metering program “green-washing masquerading as policy”. We have been held back by Sask Power’s addiction to coal; the $1.24 billion committed to rebuild a 100 MW unit at Boundary Dam for carbon capture “while enhancing provincial oil production” shows the province’s misplaced priorities. One hundred MW renewable capacity could be built much cheaper and older, dirtier coal plants could be phased-out. And energy conservation and efficiency is hardly tapped. Meanwhile the powerful uranium lobby repeatedly tries to convince gullible politicians that we should buck the global trend and “go nuclear”. Our energy policy is more lobby-based than evidence-based and evidence will likely be lacking during the election.
But the future is already here, or at least it’s becoming clear that the sooner we replace the environmentally dangerous sources of energy, the sooner we start the transition to a sustainable society that doesn’t sacrifice water, air, land or health for energy. If those running our governments were concerned about all our grandchildren they would nix the crude oil pipelines and shift resources for a faster transition to renewable, sustainable energy. The November election is a time to speak up loudly about this.