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An Energy System Worthy of the 21st Century

3 minutes to read

The world is convening this week in Paris, and one cannot help but be totally optimistic.


This is particularly true if you are Canadian. Canada, the perennial champion for the past five years of the Climate Action Network’s Fossil of the Year award has committed to take the once laggard nation towards a leadership role during negotiations at COP21. The countries freshly elected Liberal government representatives will be supported by a recently revamped Alberta government that has committed to an economy wide price on carbon, an emission cap on oil sands operations, the retirement of coal-fired generation facilities and increased renewable energy capacity. All such measures most certainly must be applauded considering only a few months ago the country was headed for its sixth consecutive Fossil of the Year award. 

Not to take anything away from these recent accomplishments, but a pragmatic observer can’t help but throw caution to the wind. Policies proposed by the Canadian government, the newly elected Alberta government and the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan are missing two fundamental aspects that the 21st century energy system desperately requires. The future requires a system that includes both local control and equitable access. The 21st century energy system must go beyond a low-carbon grid and encourage opportunities for individuals and communities to transform their relationship with the current energy system. These are required to unlock an economic transformation that parallels the technological one, by allowing communities to maximize capture of their local energy dollar.

The scale of electricity generation facilities is rapidly shrinking, from coal, nuclear and large-scale hydro that can power a million homes, towards solar, wind, biomass and combined heat and power systems that can support local communities, businesses and industries. As energy consumers, there continues to be enormous improvements in energy efficiency from our homes to our smart devices, subsequently electricity demand has plateaued. The very near future holds opportunities in battery technologies and electric vehicles that will provide new tools for distributed energy storage that will transform how we live. Smartphones and smart appliances are giving consumers new opportunities reimagine and manage energy use.

As we embark towards a low-carbon energy system, I encourage that this transformation includes the participation and integration of citizens and communities. I caution the impacts of developing large-scale renewables and large scale low-carbon generation technologies as they continue to perpetuate a system that generates favour with big industry and includes the continual expansion of costly large scale infrastructure. The continued expansion of a system designed in the 20th century further arrests the development of the 21st century energy system that can unlock opportunities on an unparalleled scale for entrepreneurs and local communities. 

How often do you ask yourself, ‘What was the source of electrons that filled your smart phone this morning?’ If the answer is not very often, then isn’t that the problem..