4 transition pathways to a low-carbon economy: energy efficiency, clean power, renewable fuels, and cleaner oil and gas

The Canadian government released the Energy Future Council’s report Thursday, claiming it’s a new “energy vision” for the country, that the energy transition “is a big deal” and that will “roll out” between now and 2040. Did the Council get it right? At first blush, there’s a lot to like. But also a warning for Canadians: expect the national government to implement aggressive policies to implement this new vision. The status quo is in for a reboot.

Merran Smith, executive director, Clean Energy Canada.

Merran Smith is the executive director of Clean Energy Canada and a co-chair of the council along with Linda Coady, Enbridge’s chief sustainability officer.

“A global energy transition is underway, and this new vision paints a picture for how Canada can navigate this change to the benefit of all Canadians,” Smith said in a press release. “For the first time ever, Canada has aligned its energy vision with its commitment to tackle climate change – it’s an important moment for Canada.”

Jim Carr, minister of natural resources, says Canada intends to play an active role in creating the “low-carbon future.”

“The Council’s report is another step toward Canada’s bright energy future, but I am looking to all Canadians to continue to provide ideas, insights and views on how we can reach our destination of a reliable, affordable, inclusive low-carbon economy,” he said in a release.

The Generation Energy Forum brought together more than 600 experts and industry representatives from traditional and emerging energy sectors, alongside Indigenous and community leaders from across the country and around the globe. The forum was the culmination of a six-month engagement process that touched more than 380,000 people through online participation, as well as in-person panels and workshops.

One thing I like is the emphasis on the role of technology – “wave of technological innovation underway globally” – as a driver of the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy generated wind, solar, tidal, and so on: “Leading economies the world over – from China and India to the US and Europe – are investing tens of billions every year to develop the new technologies, services and knowledge that will supply the world with cleaner and more efficient energy.”

This point is often neglected because of the focus on emission-reducing policy and Paris Climate Accord commitments.

Policy is obviously important. As Dr. Jessica Jewell – a visiting associate professor in the field of energy transitions at the University of Bergen, Norway – noted in a recent interview, policy can “bend the S-curve,” by which she means it can support early stage technologies until they become competitive in the marketplace with existing technologies.

Dr. Jessica Jewell.

“The policy environment matters as to how well a technology can complete, it can be supportive, it can be pushing the technology or it can be blocking the technology. It’s really hard for technologies to compete with an incumbent when there’s no policy leverage to make space for it,” she told Energi News in a 2017 interview.

One thing I didn’t like is the timeline. While the report hedges its bets, noting the obvious – that fossil fuels will be with us long after 2040 – suggesting that most of the work can be accomplished in a generation can lead Canadians to believe the energy transtion will be much quicker and less painful than will the case.

The energy transition “is happening, but it’s happening at different speeds in different jurisdictions and a lot of it is probably going to take a lot longer than we expect if you look historically at how long transitions have taken,” says Dr. Jewell.

Dr. Fred Beach, assistant director for energy and technology policy at The Energy Institute, University of Texas at Austin, says that three to four decades for a transition from one fuel source to another is unusually quick and a century is not out of the question.

“Transitions are in progress. If they go at the standard pace of market adoption and cultural change, those are 40 to 100-year processes, that’s normal. To accelerate those is difficult,” he said in an interview. “But 100 years in human time scale is nothing. Things are going to look a lot different come 2100.”

Innovation and new technologies will play a key role in the four transition pathways — energy efficiency, clean power, renewable fuels, and cleaner oil and gas — to a low-carbon economy, according to Carr.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reporting and analyzing what the Council thinks about those pathways and the policies that Justin Trudeau and the Liberals are likely to use to implement Canada’s new energy vision.

But one point needs to be made early on: if Carr and Trudeau expect to Canadian to sign on to this very ambitious new strategy, they better do a bang up job selling it to voters.

Public polling suggests Canadians recognize an energy transitionn is underway and they’re generally supportive, but they prefer pragmatic policies that keep the cost and adjustment issues to a minimum.

“We’ve noticed an increasing recognition that we have to change our behaviours both at the macro level and the micro level,” Abacus Data CEO David Coletto told Energi News in a recent interview.

“That a transition towards a lower carbon economy is actually a good thing, something that we should be looking toward, even in Alberta, where we know that there’s been far more resistance to some of the policy choices. It’s about finding a balance. “