Renewable energy – not dirty oil – is Canada’s key to economic success

The economic news today, oh boy: Layoffs, uncertainty, debt, negative growth outlook, deflationary pressures. And that’s just the Monday paper. But it’s Earth Day and that means we should be looking forward toward how we can build a brighter future for our country and our climate.

So it’s exciting that In the midst of all the doom and gloom triggered by the recent rapid slide in oil prices, there is a big bright spot: Canada’s renewable energy industry is booming. In fact, there are now more Canadians directly employed in the green energy sector than are employed in digging sticky tar out of northern Alberta.

It’s a sign of changing times. Yes, Canada can indeed be an energy superpower –just not one that stakes its future on oil and gas. We have abundant sun, wind, water and biomass and we can use these assets to build a bright low-carbon future for ourselves and future generations.

In fact, we’re already doing it. Canada saw record investment in renewable energy in 2014, with $8 billion invested in projects from coast to coast. Employment in the renewable energy sector also continues to grow strongly, increasing 37% in the last five years.

SolarShare installing panels on its latest project
Workers installing panels for the latest SolarShare project

A lot of this growth is taking place in Ontario, where the Green Energy Act has done its job in kickstarting a new industry for the province. Today, more than 10,000 Ontarians have a stake in green energy generation and an estimated 30,000 have jobs in everything from wind turbine blade manufacturing to installing solar panels.

But we can get an even bigger bang for our buck in renewable energy by developing projects through a community ownership model. Studies have found that community owned renewable energy projects create more local jobs and keep more investment dollars in the local economy than those built by conventional corporations. We also know that when community members invest in green energy projects, support for solar panels and wind turbines soars.

There is no question where the world is headed: 2014 was a record year for investment in renewable energy worldwide and that investment brought 30% more power online for every dollar spent than what was the case just three years ago. That speaks to the plunge in costs that has made wind power competitive with even cheap – and dirty – coal in many parts of the United States and why Deutsche Bank is predicting that solar energy will be competitive with conventional electricity sources in many markets in as little as two years.

The United States and China are now pouring massive amounts of money into renewable energy: more than $80 billion a year in the case of China and more than $36 billion a year in the case of the United States. Clearly, the opportunity for Ontario to get even a modest slice of what is now a $270 billion a year worldwide industry is not something we should dismiss.

OREC ribbon cutting
Ottawa Renewable Energy Co-operative at a ribbon cutting

Yet many opponents of Ontario’s green energy efforts want us to do just that. They want Ontario to turn its back on the fastest growing sector of the energy industry and go back to . . . well, we’re not really sure what they want to go back to. Buggy whips maybe?

Just as Ontario has supported its auto industry for decades, it now offers supports for renewable energy. These supports are falling quickly – payments for solar power have already dropped by as much as 40% under the province’s Feed-in Tariff program. Not many other new industries have shed government assistance as fast as is happening in green energy. In fact, we continue to cut multimillion dollar government cheques to the auto industry and billion dollar cheques to the nuclear industry long after these industries have become fully established.

The smart thing to do is to continue our efforts to grow a green energy industry that uses Ontario’s skilled workforce and manufacturing know-how to drive our economy forward. Combine that with increased community involvement in project ownership and you have a recipe for long-term economic and environmental success. The alternative is to stick our head in some dirty tar and let the world pass us by.

Header image source: solar power” by jstephenconn is licensed by CC BY-NC 2.0

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