Green energy our best shot

ONTARIO - "Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted — one moment — would you capture it or just let it slip away?"

If you're a fan of rapper Eminem those words might sound familiar. They're the opening line to his hit single Lose Yourself. And it might as well be the same message coming out of a coalition of environmental, farming, community and native groups that are urging the Ontario government to create a green energy act for the province.

Such legislation is urgently needed, they argue, if Ontario has any hope of stimulating the economy, tackling climate change, shutting down its coal plants and staying competitive with its U.S. neighbours under a decidedly pro-green Obama-led administration.

The province has one shot.

"Unless Ontario proceeds in an expedited fashion we're going to be left in the dust," Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, said during a gathering of coalition members recently at Queen's Park.

The coalition envisions legislation that would make renewable energy and conservation a priority in electricity-system planning, streamline regulation and the way power is purchased, push enabling "smart-grid" technologies, establish low-cost project financing and protect low-income consumers.

All of this would be with an eye to growing a green economy in Ontario that supports local jobs and technologies. "We have some sense they (the McGuinty government) want to use this as an industrial driver," said Deborah Doncaster, executive director of the Community Power Fund and a lead proponent of the envisioned act.

Indeed, officials are working on some kind of green energy act in the background and there's high-level interest in making it happen within the next few months. Less clear is how far Premier Dalton McGuinty is willing to go.

Half-measures won't do it, said Smith, drawing attention to a green-jobs movement in the United States that's gaining serious momentum. "Either the government should table an effective green energy act or it shouldn't bother."

A free showing of David Suzuki's new documentary, The Suzuki Diaries, was used to promote the idea of a green energy act and several people of influence were in the crowd.

Energy and Infrastructure Minister George Smitherman and Environment Minister John Gerretsen were among them, as was Colin Andersen, chief executive of the Ontario Power Authority and several of his senior staff.

With a captive audience, Suzuki issued a passionate appeal.

"Ontario stands at a critical point now and we have to take advantage of the opportunity." During a panel discussion between Suzuki and Smitherman moderated by yours truly, the energy minister was a voice of reason on both sides of the fence.

Asked if he believed it's possible one day to power the province with 100 per cent renewable energy, Smitherman said he did, but emphasized some important realities that can't just be swept aside.

The transmission system, as it is, couldn't support a rapid transition. Nuclear power employs thousands of people in the province and is the economic engine for several communities. Energy prices in Ontario are much lower than in Europe.

"Not everybody sees the picture the same way," said Smitherman, warning that "not in my backyard" isn't always the reason for opposition. "It's important not to play the demonization card and label everyone a NIMBY."

The nuclear issue is a particular hot button for Suzuki, who as we know from his popular PowerWise TV commercials is a huge proponent of energy conservation. Suzuki, angered by Smitherman's seemingly unwavering commitment to build new nuclear plants in Ontario, recently quit the PowerWise campaign in protest.

Despite his frustration, Suzuki did recognize the government for its commitment to phasing out coal and being more progressive than other jurisdictions on the green-energy file.

Indeed, Ontario gets about 20 per cent of its electricity from hydroelectric generation alone, thanks to our great grandparents, and the target is to reach about 45 per cent by 2025 through the addition of wind turbines, solar parks, biogas generation from farms and landfills and new hydropower.

Germany may be an economic powerhouse when it comes to renewable energy and a poster child of the industry, but it only gets 15 per cent of its electricity from renewables – most of it added in the past two decades.

And while Ontario made the decision to phase out coal and keep nuclear, Germany phased out nuclear but kept coal. Each jurisdiction has its own trade-offs to make, said Smitherman.

Proponents of a green energy act, however, say it's the vision that's important, as well as how the policies aimed at reaching that vision make the transition faster and easier while boosting the local economy and made-in-Ontario innovation.

"It makes no sense to set renewable energy standards and then import all the equipment from overseas," said Andy King of the United Steelworkers Union, which has 80,000 members who are being hit hard in Ontario. The union sees a new era of manufacturing that supports development of green infrastructure and, ideally, a healthy export market.

It will cost money to get there, but it will cost us even more if we delay. Besides, all governments have embraced the need for economic stimulus. The trick now is to target the right areas.

"We can't afford the cost of not doing it," said King, adding that the creation of green-collar jobs is an effective way of combating NIMBYism and gaining community support for renewables.

"There's this opportunity of participation through employment."

Even the wind industry realizes putting green power on the grid isn't enough on its own. "In the long-term, continued political support of the wind industry will hinge on the ability to create jobs," said Robert Hornung, president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association.

He said there are 8,000 components that go into a wind turbine and they should be built here.

"If we don't somebody else will, because in the U.S. there's no turning away from this opportunity."

Cleveland, for example, is hosting a wind industry supply-chain conference in hopes of showcasing itself as a place to set up manufacturing. Cities in Ohio, New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are all competing for the same jobs.

Ontario needs to muscle in on that action, said Suzuki.

"We've got a very well-educated population in Ontario. I don't believe we have to take second seat to anybody if we make the commitment and see this as an opportunity."


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