Renewable is doable

WWF aims to help Canada reach 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050

“To reach a port, we must sail – sail, not tie at anchor – sail, not drift.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt
When confronted with the current and future threats facing our environment, our economy and infrastructure, our society and healthcare, we must be bold, we must have faith in our abilities, and we must dream of a better future for all.

Wind turbines, Alberta, Canada
Wind turbines near Cowley in southern Alberta, Canada. © Patricia Buckley / WWF-Canada

This is what provinces, municipalities, businesses and individuals – in Canada and around the world – are doing right now. They are introducing new and innovative policies that collectively will shift us away from fossil fuels. We can start, of course, by using much less energy – the opportunities for energy efficiency in Canada are numerous, cost effective, and are relatively underexplored. Initiatives like the City of Toronto’s Tower Renewal project have shown how small changes in government policy in cooperation with the private sector have the potential for massive reductions in energy use.
In the face of such significant important changes, we often hear from loud detractors.
Reasonable people, concerned about the risks associated with change, who hope things will just get better if we continued on our regular course.
They ask: “What if the scientists are wrong about climate change?” Or: “Do we even have the right technology, and isn’t it too expensive?” Or even: “Do you want us to go back to the dark ages and give up electricity?”
Thankfully, with irrefutable scientific evidence, and demonstrable progress in renewable energy and energy storage technology, we’ve been hearing this sort of thing less frequently. It still pops up from time to time though – like a few weeks ago with Eric Reguly’s column in the Globe and Mail – and this Earth Day, I’d like to take the time to again make the case for a renewable energy future. And illustrate why I am confident we can demonstrate that a future built on renewables is possible.
Personally, I find this lack of vision, and fear of change, disingenuous and frankly, sad. It would be as if twenty years ago people argued that Africa could not expect to have mass telephone service because the wires were too expensive – now we know, of course, that the cell phone made that investment redundant and allowed incredible telephone coverage in an often poor continent.
Those advocating for, and working towards, a switch to renewable energy aren’t just hopeful environmentalists. They are innovators, scientists, business leaders, economists and world leaders. We are seeing the consequences of our fossil fuel-based lifestyles, and are working to a new solution.
First – Cost: “Won’t switching to renewables be too expensive?”
No, it won’t. And it might even save money. Often when we discuss the cost of energy, we conveniently ignore the significant government subsidies we give to the oil and gas sector. According to the International Monetary Fund, fossil fuel subsidies in Canada are beyond $34 billion each year. Globally, it’s almost $2 trillion. Despite this unbalanced playing field, in 2013, WWF demonstrated that in OECD countries, utility scale hydro, wind, geothermal and some solar is now cost competitive with oil and gas. Add to this that the cost of renewable infrastructure is plummeting as the technologies become more mainstream – in three years (2010-2013) we saw the cost of solar PV drop 60% – and that renewable energy creates more jobs per year compared to fossil fuels – between 1.5 – 7.9 times more jobs per unit of electricity generation, – the future for renewable energy looks bright.
Next – Timing: “We can’t switch to renewables right away, we aren’t ready yet”
In 2011, in consultation with globally-recognized economists, WWF mapped the path to 100% renewable energy by 2050. At that time, giving us 39 years to make the transition. We’re not under the impression that things can change overnight, but we also know that to make a significant difference, we need to start working today to create the future we want.
Just think of how fast things can change in 35 years. Technology improves, costs drop, solutions are found. Today we each carry a mini computer in our pocket that 35 years ago was unimaginable.
Just a few examples that demonstrate what is possible when we are bold:

  • Ontario phased out coal (which generated 25% of the province’s energy) in under 10 years.
  • In 2013, Denmark was already generating more than 35% of their energy from wind and solar.
  • In Norway, one in five vehicle purchases are electric (50,000 to-date in a country with an equivalent population to British Columbia), taking advantage of the country’s renewable electricity.

With more than 62% of Canada’s energy from renewable sources today (57% hydro and 5.5% non-hydro), we are in a good position to lead the world in this transition.
Finally – Reliability: “But how will we get power at night or when the wind isn’t blowing?”

Many countries are already coupling intermittent renewable energy (i.e., solar and wind) with other renewables and energy storage to ensure grid reliability. Spain (over 30% renewable electricity), Denmark (over 40% renewable energy), Germany (over 25% renewable energy), and Ireland (over 20% renewable energy) are all demonstrating what’s possible by increasing energy efficiency, improving demand management, increasing energy storage, and generating renewables (in these cases excluding hydro).

While it is understandable to be worried about the changes that are happening and are yet to come for our global economy and energy, we can’t drift, or be caught tying anchor to the past. We must be bold, and act now on our past to a renewable future or else be left behind.