Reading Frank McKenna’s speech to the Atlantic Canada Energy Summit, reprinted in the Opinions section on Nov. 4, I felt unexpected relief.
Finally, a regional perspective on the key factor we need to keep in mind when making decisions about our energy sector and electricity systems.
McKenna thinks there is a revolution happening for energy in Atlantic Canada. “The secret to this revolution is infrastructure,” he said, “and each new investment in infrastructure opens a whole new world of opportunities.”
But my relief was followed quickly by dismay. At some point, McKenna loses track of his own logic and begins to argue that the nature of energy infrastructure justifies fracking and Trans-Canada’s proposed Energy East pipeline. In fact, given the long life of infrastructure, the opposite is true.
Energy and electricity infrastructure is big and it’s expensive and it lasts a long time. Infrastructure that gets built now defines the world we live in 40 and 50 years from now, and limits the choices we’ll be able to make in that world.
The former New Brunswick premier illustrates this with some useful examples, describing the cumulative effects of growing natural gas infrastructure in the Maritimes that began with Sable Island.
Here’s another example of the long-term ripple effect of infrastructure investment: Without the coal mines of mid-century Nova Scotia, there would be no coal-burning electricity generators in the province. Without those facilities, Nova Scotia would not be the multi-million-dollar import market for Columbian and American coal that it is today, with some of the highest electricity prices in Canada.
An energy revolution is indeed underway in Atlantic Canada. That revolution looks like energy efficiency saving enough power to run 63,000 homes in Nova Scotia in 2013 and creating 1,200 jobs in four years.
It looks like world-class research into smart grids in New Brunswick. It looks like Prince Edward Island producing up to 30 per cent of its electricity with wind energy and Newfoundland and Labrador becoming better integrated with the North American grid.
It is a revolution of clean energy, of innovation, and of responsible resource management. It is a revolution that sees Atlantic Canadians learning new skills to become employed in emerging sectors that keep money in communities, rather than sending it to international shareholders and fossil-fuel markets. It is a revolution that is redefining our ideas of prosperity and the ways energy can support and jeopardize that prosperity.
Companies looking to develop hard-to-reach hydrocarbons and transport them long distances are building infrastructure of the past. Our success, and the well-being of our children and grandchildren, depends on us building infrastructure of the future.
We must ensure that 50 years from now, we are telling the story of how our regional electric vehicle network was made possible by investments in renewable energy generation that made our electricity systems 100 per cent fossil-free by 2035, the development of innovative storage and smart-grid technologies that helped us manage the intermittency of the wind, sun, and tides through the 2020s, and the ongoing construction of grid infrastructure that allowed the Atlantic provinces to share power over long distances while also allowing communities to become more self-sufficient with local energy production.
It is true that we will continue using fossil fuels for a while longer. It is also clear that fossil fuels are becoming more difficult and costly to extract. Plus, there’s that whole business of our addiction to fossil fuels propelling changes in the climate that will obliterate our coastlines and dramatically shorten the lake hockey season.
The era of fossil fuels is drawing to a close. It must end if we are to safeguard the health of future generations, and it can end because present generations have developed the alternatives.
Transition takes time and those alternatives won’t entirely replace our fossil fuel-based systems in the next decade. They will, however, dominate the global energy and electricity landscapes of 2050.
At this point, it is an either/or choice: either we invest in clean energy infrastructure or we continue down the road of fossil fuels. The future can not afford for us to have it all.
And that’s what the “mob” that McKenna warns his political comrades against has been trying to say. Surprising as it may be to some, we are not a scared, childish rabble in need of a strong hand.
We’re of course concerned about the immediate threats to our communities and to our water that fracking and pipelines pose, but there’s more to it than that. We know that decisions we’re making today about infrastructure have huge implications for a future we care about.
Once built, all an oil pipeline can do is move oil. Once established, an onshore natural gas industry based on fracking creates an entire economic sphere that relies on continuous fossil-fuel extraction. Jobs are created and revenue is generated, but those benefits are shackled to resources that are on their way out. Forty years from now, we have a pipeline pumping oil the world can’t afford to burn and a sector we’re trying to keep afloat as the resource disappears.
We’re saying we can do better than that.
The jobs and revenue created by investing in the sustainable energy sector and building sustainable electricity infrastructure are not as familiar to us as the kind of prosperity we associate with fossil fuels, but they are real.
Seeing them means shifting our perspective, and growing them means making long-term plans with short-term goals. It’s not going to happen all at once, but the transition is already underway. It is a revolution for Atlantic Canada, by Atlantic Canadians, and it is the future we are building together.
Catherine Abreu is energy co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax