Keystone? Nah. Energy Ministers are ready for Clean XL

This week, North America’s energy ministers are getting together in Winnipeg for something that would have been unimaginable a year ago: a meeting that won’t include the Keystone XL pipeline proposal.

In fact, if there’s anything XL-sized on this meeting’s agenda, it’s likely to be clean energy. And for Canada’s North American friends, that’s going to be a very welcome change.

Consider the U.S. storyline: while Canada’s former federal government was pushing pipelines, the Obama Administration presided over a twenty-fold increase in solar power—with the result that the solar sector has created jobs at 10 times the national average. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the U.S. was second in the world (behind China) in the total new clean energy capacity it brought on-stream in 2015, with US$56 billion invested.

Similarly, sunny Mexico is well on its way to being a clean energy powerhouse, with over US$4 billion invested in 2015—more than double the previous year’s investment.

Canada already sold nearly CAD$4 billion-worth of clean power to the U.S. in 2014, and new sources of clean power from Canada can help replace U.S. coal.

Little wonder that clean energy and tackling climate change topped the agenda at last year’s meeting of North American energy ministers: for clean energy producers all over this continent, the sector is big business.

Canada’s federal government used to be out of step. When North American energy leaders met in 2014 to work on collaboration, Canada’s then-minister highlighted his plans to talk up Keystone XL.

We all know how that story ended. And when President Obama did say no to Keystone late last year, the new Trudeau government’s response pivoted straight to cleaner energy, stating that Canada will work with “like-minded countries to combat climate change, adapt to its impacts, and create the clean jobs of tomorrow.” In other words: we hear you, and we’re going to start talking clean.

So when a new Natural Resources Minister, Jim Carr—whose mandate letter includes six references to “clean” energy and technology—meets his peers in Winnipeg this week, what can he do to convince them that Canada is finally getting serious about clean energy?

One important area should come naturally to an MP from the hydro powerhouse of Manitoba: promoting cross-border cooperation on clean energy exports.

President Obama’s signature climate change policy, the Clean Power Plan, aims to cut greenhouse gas pollution from the U.S. electricity sector—and despite a recent court-imposed delay while litigation proceeds, the White House remains confident that the plan will ultimately be upheld by the courts.

Canada already sold nearly CAD$4 billion-worth of clean power to the U.S. in 2014, and new sources of clean power from Canada can help replace U.S. coal.

Naturally, wind, water and solar developers across Canada would love to take advantage of the new markets that President Obama’s policy opens up to them. Indeed, analysis from the respected North American Electric Reliability Council suggests that Canada could triple its exports to the U.S. as the Clean Power Plan takes full effect in 2030.

Seizing this opportunity depends on cooperation between North America’s leaders. In the absence of federal leadership, U.S. states may opt to “buy local”—increasing costs, and failing to take advantage of a world-leading example of cross-border electricity infrastructure.

Marquee projects, like a transmission line to let Manitoba hydropower backstop wind power for Minnesota, show what this kind of collaboration can look like in practice.

Last year’s energy ministers’ meeting laid the groundwork for a collaborative approach to clean power in North America, pledging joint action on smarter grids and deploying clean energy. Energy ministers can aim higher in Winnipeg—for example, by making commitments to the grid upgrades that let clean power play a greater role in our continent’s energy mix.

But the conversation should also move well beyond traditional uses of electricity. To make a serious dent in carbon pollution, we need to use clean electricity to heat buildings, power industry and electrify transportation.

So if you want to grow the clean energy sector—as all three North American countries say they want to do—then you want to see more electric cars on the road.

So even if they’re not talking oil this week, we hope that North America’s ministers will be talking cars.

Electric vehicles are a key piece of the puzzle to curb greenhouse gas pollution from transportation.

The more electric vehicles we use, the more clean power we’ll want to operate them. So if you want to grow the clean energy sector—as all three North American countries say they want to do—then you want to see more electric cars on the road.

Meanwhile, Canada, the U.S. and Mexico are all major auto producers, and the continent’s vehicle manufacturing sector is highly integrated.

So the puzzle pieces are aligned to build a North American Electric Auto Pact. That could start with the three partners working together on infrastructure—the charging stations that give electric car drivers confidence to head out on the open road—as well as on harmonized regulations and stronger incentives for drivers to buy electric cars.

Finally, Canada’s clean energy data is weak, a scattershot effort spread between various government agencies. We could learn a lot from the world-leading approach at the U.S. Energy Information Agency. Better data contributes to better public policy, and improving Canada’s effort in this area would fulfill a 2014 commitment from energy ministers to develop better continental energy data.

So there’s an XL-sized selection of clean energy opportunities for North America’s energy ministers to explore this week. Working together to seize them should be, to borrow a phrase, a complete no-brainer.

Clare Demerse is a senior policy advisor at Clean Energy Canada, an initiative of Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue. Originally published in iPolitics. 

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