2012’s Six Most Overlooked Energy Stories

This past year, the story of energy in Canada was a story of Alberta oil — who owns it, who wants it, and how we’re going to get it to them. From Iqaluit to Charlottetown to Tofino, battles over bitumen, pipelines, and tankers bound for China dominated front pages, talk shows, and social media (#cdnpoli).

But there was more going on out there. Here are a few stories that we argue matter just as much to our energy future, but that didn’t necessarily trend on Twitter:

1. We could make a killing in EVs

The final report of the recently shuttered National Round Table for the Environment and the Economy pegs the current value of Canada’s clean technology and clean energy economy at about $8 billion and notes it could grow to between $36 billion and $60 billion by 2050. Much of that boom could come from plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, pure electric vehicles, and highly efficient cars. With supportive policy, EV investment could increase almost 15 times between now and 2050 — from about $1.6 billion currently to over $24.2 billion in 2050. At the moment, we build muscle cars out in Windsor. Perhaps it’s time to kick the tires on the new models?

2. The grid goes digital

A quiet revolution is underway behind the poles, wires, and substations that blend into the background and that make possible services such as heat and light that we take for granted. Across Canada, utility companies are investing in fleets of digital sensors to complement the smart meters that, in many regions, now support two-way communication between power companies and customers. Soon, citizens will be able to sell the excess clean electricity they generate back to the utility, while power companies will be able to more accurately balance generation with demand. Result? Fewer flickering lights, reduced costs, and lower emissions.

3. Canada’s hidden opportunity

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy identified a colossal opportunity for efficiency improvements across the country, when it ranked Canada second to last in energy efficiency out of a dozen major economies — lower than both Brazil and China, and just ahead of Russia. Again, look at the opportunity: Investments in efficient buildings could climb from current levels of about $1.5 billion to over $9.7 billion in 2050. Some near-term progress on efficiency did emerge this year: The federal government announced new standards for post-2016 vehicles that will compel automakers to dramatically improve fuel efficiency.

4. Canadians support a carbon price

Credit superstorm Sandy, or this summer’s vanishing ice cap, or the spike in food prices from the collapse of U.S. crops, but this year more of us began connecting the climate dots. According to Environics Institute polling, a clear majority of Canadians now believe global warming is real, that governments must take the lead in addressing it with new regulations and standards, and that citizens must help pay for the necessary actions through taxes and higher prices. The research says about 59 per cent of Canadians would support a carbon tax. Even the president of Shell Canada said she was down with the idea.

5. First Nations unplug from diesel

By embracing community-owned renewable energy, a growing number of remote aboriginal communities are now meeting their energy needs without expensive, noisy, and polluting diesel generators — saving money that could be used for economic development. British Columbia has invested $3.26 million to help 61 Aboriginal communities participate in the clean energy sector, including wind energy, biomass and run-of-river hydroelectric power. Next year, watch for a few deals in which First Nations will, for the first time, take a majority ownership stake in major clean power projects located in their territories.

6. Welcome to the United States of Arabia!

A bombshell report by the conservative International Energy Agency concludes that, due to lowered demand and new drilling techniques that will unlock shale oil and offshore reserves, our southern neighbour could become the world’s largest oil producer before 2017. Uncle Sam could stop importing petroleum altogether by 2035. As the U.S. is currently the largest buyer of Canadian oil, this redrawing of the energy map presents staggering implications for our economy. As former international trade minister David Emerson wrote in 2011’s Shaping Alberta’s Future report, “We may have heavy oil to sell, but few or no profitable markets wishing to buy.” Now might be a good time to place a few of our eggs in a few more baskets.

What will be the big story of 2013? Driven by multi-billion dollar deficits linked to the falling price of petroleum, several provinces may take serious steps to insulate their economies against commodity price swing by investing in clean technology and innovation. Also, Ottawa has repeatedly stated it will align its pollution policies with those of Washington. Guess who just named climate change and energy one of his top three priorities for the coming four years? That’s right, President Barack Obama.

This article previously appeared in The Vancouver Sun.

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