Guest Blog: Report Card Highlights Canada's 'Hesitant' Support for Cleantech Deployment

Guest blog by Mitchell Beer

Today's Pembina Institute report card on Canada's hesitant support for clean energy deployment fills in an important piece of the puzzle for anyone who follows the continuing energy relationship between Canada and the United States.

One of the key takeaways is that, while policy support is tremendously important, deployment is the gold standard by which any clean energy initiative must ultimately be judged. And by that measure, Canada is quickly falling behind in the market for clean technology exports.

Canadian exports currently capture about 1% of a $1-trillion global cleantech market, and "with a comprehensive set of policies and programs to encourage domestic market deployment and export development, Canada has the opportunity to position itself as an even greater supplier of cleantech to the U.S.," concludes a research team led by Penelope Cornette, Pembina's clean energy economy program director.

A Missed Opportunity

"Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive policy framework for supporting Canada's cleantech exports at national or provincial levels. Instead, these policies appear to be scattered across the country, which means all levels of government have work to do to fill in the gaps."

That's both a shame and a missed opportunity, at a time when Canada has significant untapped export potential and the United States is in the market for clean energy solutions. In mid-June, at an NRDC workshop on the energy relationship between the two countries, panelists and participants pointed to specific opportunities for clean energy trade and listed some of the obstacles to expanding the bilateral dialogue beyond a single pipeline or fuel.

But the Pembina report, originally commissioned by NRDC, underscores the homework ahead for Canada if governments decide they want to diversify the relationship.

The Right Tools for the Job

Pembina puts forward a six-part policy toolbox for supporting domestic deployment, cleantech business growth, and cleantech exports, then follows with a province-by-province assessment that points to a stunning gap between potential and reality:

  • Ontario and Quebec each have "several policies in place" in four of the six toolbox categories and "some policies in place" in the other two. British Columbia has activity in five of six areas, Nova Scotia in four.
  • But after that, the pickings are pretty slim: Two provinces are active in three areas, three provinces in only two, and one--Prince Edward Island--limits its cleantech activity to a smattering of technical support.

Canada's federal government is active in five of the six areas, but its strongest focus is on research and development--as opposed to the commercialization, technical support, business support, or trade development that would help the industry meet its full potential. Pembina adds that the absence of a strong structural framework for industry development "is a hindrance to expanding the domestic cleantech economy."

An Imbalanced Response

Compare this uneven, often half-hearted approach to cleantech to the full-throated support that fossil fuel development received from many of the same jurisdictions when the 13 provincial and territorial premiers finalized their Canadian Energy Strategy earlier this month. Fundamentally, the majority of the premiers placed their bets with the fossil fuel industries they see as a cornerstone for economic development, with only a few of them realizing that the most promising source of future jobs and prosperity was just beyond their grasp.

"Facilitating pipelines means committing to expand tar sands development, which is utterly inconsistent with Canada's professed commitment to join the international community in combatting climate change," said Anthony Swift, director of NRDC's Canada Project, "Canada needs to reduce, not increase, its carbon pollution."

Energy Strategy is Industrial Strategy

Some of the same facts and arguments came to the surface at NRDC's mid-June workshop. The two countries have been engaged in a formal Clean Energy Dialogue since 2009, but its primary focus has been on meetings, conferences, and assorted conversations, with a strong nod to carbon capture and storage as a focus for applied research and development.

The workshop discussion paper stressed the importance of cleantech deployment--as a key component of any low-carbon strategy, and as a massive industrial development opportunity.

"With clean energy costs plummeting and deployment speeding up, the two national governments are missing important synergies between regional energy systems on opposite sides of the border," NRDC noted in a four-page synopsis of the discussion paper.

"This gap, in turn, deprives U.S. and Canadian clean energy producers of domestic opportunities that would help them position themselves in a burgeoning global market, while contributing to the rapid decarbonization agenda that is taking shape around the world."

A Moment of Opportunity

On the U.S. side of the border, the moment of opportunity for a broader energy dialogue may soon be upon us, if Beltway rumours are correct that a White House announcement on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline is imminent. If Keystone is rejected, the conversational vacuum it leaves behind could be filled by any number of immediate clean energy opportunities. Even if the pipeline is approved, it will make sense to ask what's next for two countries that share the world's largest bilateral trading relationship.

But that raises a crucial question: If the U.S. were ready to discuss a wider menu of clean energy options, would Canada be in a position to reciprocate? The Pembina report card shows that provincial and federal governments have some distance to go to fully tap the cleantech export opportunities that are open to them.

Mitchell Beer is a member of NRDC's Clean Energy Team, president of Ottawa-based Smarter Shift Inc., and curator of The Energy Mix, a free, thrice-weekly e-digest on climate, energy, and the low-carbon transition.