On December 2, Positive Energy hosted a debate at the Château Laurier, titled Go Big or Go Home? The Future of Canadian Energy. Will Canada’s energy future will be dominated by large-scale, centralized systems, or more locally-led, democratized systems? We have adapted the opening remarks of each debater for this four-part blog series.
Going Big is so 20th century
Do we really want to keep betting on Big? Muskrat Falls is bankrupting a province, we have national discord because of energy, and our climate trendline is going in exactly in the wrong direction.
Energy is a colonial enterprise that reflects the colonial history of Canada. It’s controlled by government, delivered by utilities and large companies. Is that really the 21st century? I don’t think so. Yes, we need some of that infrastructure, but let’s not get caught in the squishy middle. Let’s look at the challenge before us. In a digital, decentralized, decarbonized world, Home will count. If you look at the major consumption of energy in the country, it’s at home. It’s for our heating, cooling, transport, and cellphones.
In fact, what we’re moving to is an electricity system that’s more integrated, where electricity transport, heating and cooling needs are going to be combined, as technology offers us options.
If we bet on Big alone, our country will fail in terms of the energy transition, it will fail in terms of climate action, and it will fail to realize the dividends of energy prosperity in the 21st century.
Recasting what small means
I don’t see small as being “small,” I see it as being impactful. In that regard, we must look at how aggregation and scalability of energy in the future really has an impact.
If you look at Indigenous communities, they own (or partly own) almost 200 medium-to-large-sized and almost 3,000 smaller projects. It’s their participation as small players in the energy economy that is making them major players in Canada’s energy future.
One of the major challenges of energy is change in terms of how society and social license work. If you look at Iran, there are demonstrations over energy prices. If you look at Chile, protests over energy in transport. What people have concern about—all people—is not being involved in the energy system. They don’t want to be passive consumers. They want to be included in decision-making and maybe even the delivery and generation of energy.
This is about equity, not inequity. When people see that they’re participating in the energy system, they understand trade-offs. Take the Henvey Inlet First Nation on the shores of Lake Huron. They own 50 percent of what is Canada’s largest wind energy project. Big project, small consumers, and they supported it.
To take another example, rebuilding energy efficient homes in Indigenous communities will cost $23 billion. That’s large in impact, but small leadership will make it happen. I was in Yukon recently looking at their energy future. It is more diversified, it has more players, and it’s a mix of big and small. Small isn’t “small”, small is impactful, scaleable, and aggregative.
When we look at the future of transport, one of the largest energy consumers we have, you have to say how the change will work. I love the new PetroCanada ad that talks about the electric highway around the country. But that’s small! It’s the small owner, the small licensee that will work with big companies to bring about a future of electrified transport.
Co-creation, collaboration, cooperation
One of the things we’ve learned at Indigenous Clean Energy is that when you train and equip people in Indigenous communities to be part of the future, they understand how they can shape it. Small players influencing a big system.
We’re talking about a new form of energy capitalism—not a colonial capitalism, a collaborative capitalism. And ecological integrity is a part of that. Energy can also be restorative, it can help deal with climate and protect the environment. Canada has 400 medium-to-large-scale hydro projects that need to be built in the next few decades. Well, how is that going to work if the 800 First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples aren’t a part of that? It won’t. It was done wrong 10, 50, 80 years ago. How can it be done right now?
Supply and demand
We have diverse supply and demand, and the energy market is changing faster than people think. Someone recently asked me “Chris, where is the big energy market right now?” It’s all behind the meter. It’s Wal-Mart, Costco, hospital, a municipality saying they’ll install solar panels, get electricity cheaper than we can get it on the grid when the sun is shining. You need both.
The reality is that the market is changing because of diverse supply, demand, and technology. There’s only one word you need to know: storage, storage, storage. Once you change the paradigm of storage, the electricity system changes. Storage is inherently decentralized, near demand, and offers people the chance to use their cars for storage. Lock into big infrastructure for the next 50 years is myopic and narrow-minded because technology is going to offer options. The answer is storage.
Finally, we have our national geography. We have diesel communities that want to use renewables and conservation as their way forward. If you look at the bioenergy economy, we have a ton of it here in Canada. We have sewage trees, sludge, agricultural waste, solid waste. Can we not use those energy forms more effectively? And they’re inherently going to be small. It’s going to be local and generative.
We’ve got to change, and in the words of Red Green: “I’m a man… I can change… if I have to… I guess.”