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Clean energy: Ruse or Reality?

Clean Energy Conference at École Polytechnique

Quebecers have long boasted about their virtuous path to clean energy. According to the Ministère des Ressources naturelles, 97 per cent of all electricity generated in Quebec is considered ‘green.’ The province has established itself as a global leader in hydroelectricity, and more recently as a major pioneer in wind energy.

On May 14, tech entrepreneur and McGill alumnus, Lorne Trottier, officially announced his latest contribution to higher education and science at the “Toward a 100% Clean-Energy Quebec” conference held at École Polytechnique de Montréal.

The conference kicked-off Trottier’s newest endeavour, L’Institut de l’Énergie Trottier (IET) at École Polytechnique, mirroring his venture last year, McGill’s equivalent Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design (TISED).  As innovative think tanks, both IET and TISED tackle our future energy sector challenges through education, research, and community outreach, aiming to teach sustainability to Quebec’s next generation of engineers and scientists.

Established in 2010 as a partnership between the Trottier Family Foundation, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Academy of Engineering, the Trottier Energy Futures Project (TEFP) takes the initiative to answer today’s hottest questions surrounding the reduction of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. The project serves as a catalyst for progress in Canada’s energy sector by promoting various challenges that revolve around the fossil fuel industry. These include net zero energy buildings, bioenergy, supply chain strategy, and transportation, while also addressing the hurdles of financing a low carbon future.

TEFP promotes low-carbon technologies and practices such as reducing energy intensive industrial processes, developing carbon capture and storage, and the further development of nuclear energy.

In spite of Canada’s shift toward lucrative black gold and the prospect of huge profits from shale gas, Quebec’s dedication to a post-carbon economy has so far remained firm.

However, the recent discoveries of oil and gas reserves in the province have Quebecers divided. Advocates declare that exploiting these hydrocarbon deposits is Quebec’s golden ticket to prosperity and a moral obligation to future generations to take measures to decrease our debt. In contrast, supporters of a greener Quebec cite fracking – hydraulic fracturing of the earth to release stored gas – as a potential source of groundwater pollution and considerable environmental degradation, and therefore a step in the wrong direction.

Unfortunately, the debate in Quebec has turned political. Premier Pauline Marois and her Parti Québécois hold only a marginal minority in the National Assembly and cannot afford to upset their base supporters. It’s interesting to note that the Canadian Energy Institute has valued shale gas extractions in Quebec at over $100 billion for the next 25 years. So when pressed for a decision, Marois decided to punt – asking the environmental board to further review fracking projects and potential drawbacks – effectively avoiding a potential controversy.

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The conference mostly focused on the global environmental picture. Hans Björn (a.k.a. Teddy) Püttgen, director of the Energy Center at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, and world renowned for his research in energy systems, was one of the panelists and presenters invited to the conference. He opened his presentation with the notion of bifurcation, which implies differentiating the moral responsibilities of industrialized and emerging countries.

He argues that in industrial nations – where a certain level of technology has been achieved – the challenge is the utilization of energy in a more efficient way. On the other hand, the challenge in emerging countries is massively and rapidly developing energy generation while avoiding potentially catastrophic environmental consequences. It’s shocking that while you read this off your computer or smartphone, 15 per cent of the world population – over one billion people – do not have access to electricity.

Since 1973, the global demand for energy has doubled. But even more remarkably, energy production has shot up by an astounding 350 per cent. Energy consumption in countries that are a part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) grew 127 per cent, led mostly by renewable sources. By contrast, the energy consumption growth of countries outside of the OECD – such as China, India, and Brazil – surged up by a staggering 257 per cent, dominated mostly by oil and coal. As Püttgen puts it, “The 21st century will, unfortunately, be that of coal,” as he notes the 348 per cent increase in coal burning to produce electricity.

Countries like China have few options. Coal is a reliable energy resource, as it does not depend on the weather nor require highly sophisticated technology. Unlike hydro or nuclear plants, coal power plants can be built up fast and close to population centers. And as it turns out, most major developing countries have vast coal resources within their borders.

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Many claim nuclear energy is the key to a carbon-free economy. According to industry experts and academics, including the conference’s panelists, nuclear energy is the answer. Some argue that everyone would be better off if industrialized nations simply made the technology available to all. Easier said than done.

Catastrophic events at Fukushima and Chernobyl have tainted the public image, inviting the idea of mushroom clouds and radioactive fallout – a mess no politician wants to be faced with. Yet, Püttgen was not shy to give his opinion. He claimed that to truly consider a 100 per cent clean energy path, the nuclear option must remain on the table – bar the threat of a potential disaster.

On December 28, 2012, Quebec closed down its only nuclear power plant, the Gentilly-2, which supplied 675 megawatts (MW) of electricity, enough to power 275,000 households. Fortunately for Quebec, hydroelectricity is available and vast. Other regions are not so lucky.

France’s President François Hollande is committed to decreasing dependence on nuclear energy from 75 per cent to 50 per cent of their total electricity profile by 2025. Germany is also going through with an anti-nuclear strategy and is closing eight of their seventeen nuclear plants. The political decision to take nuclear offline without an equivalent decrease in the demand for electricity is not an easy one.

European countries have highly developed renewable resources – wind in particular. In the long term, they can install more wind turbines or solar power plants, but as Germany has already started its nuclear decommissioning process, they’ve been importing France’s nuclear and Switzerland’s carbon-based electricity, effectively leaving the bigger picture unchanged. Germany has a huge capacity for carbon based fuels, and recent events have put heavy pressure on the industry to reopen their plants as a solution to the power mismatch.

In lieu of this, the Swiss are aggressively tackling the problem from a different angle. They’ve set a long-term goal to cut energy consumption in half by 2050. This means not only a reduction in their electricity use, but also more efficient vehicles, smaller houses, less garbage, and a huge change from a fossil fuel based economy to one more dependent on renewable sources – an enormous and risky undertaking that has politicians terrified of the repercussions.

Politics play a big role in our progressive reform to the global energy sector. Püttgen argues that we can no longer consider energy the “sujet du jour.” It must be a long-term goal, not a campaign promise.

Advances in renewable technology are driving down electricity production costs and leading to a renewed interest in long-term investments. However, as Püttgen decisively pointed out, the challenge is not finding a new energy source, but improving energy storage. In other words, we need better batteries. He confidently claimed that decarbonisation will happen as a direct consequence.

That being said, there is much to be hopeful for. In recent news, green energy is making front-page headlines, and investment is at a record high. Goldman Sachs recently announced a $500 million investment in a rooftop solar company SolarCity, which has successfully raised over two billion dollars to finance rooftop installations.

And they are not the only ones. Financial heavyweights like US Bancorp and Credit Suisse have also created huge tax equity funds to invest in renewable energy companies.

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At the conference, McGill’s Professor James Nicell pointed out that 40 years ago, engineers were taught that “the solution to pollution is dilution.” Prior to the 1980s, the world was believed to have infinitely available resources and unlimited space. Today we know this to be false. Environment protection ideology – with the goal of reducing waste – has adopted the 4 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Recover.

Yet, as countries like China and India emerge into the industrial age, the demand for energy has never been so high. The needs of both industrialized and emerging countries must be addressed together. In Quebec, serious questions regarding the exploitation of newly found oil and gas reserves and the adoption of a permanent non-nuclear energy strategy are being addressed. Institutions, like those established by Trottier, allow us to tackle these challenges through education and research. As Nicell puts it, “Students are the most renewable resource that we have.”

In his closing remarks, Nicell echoed Richard Branson’s hopeful words, “I believe in goals. It’s never a bad thing to have a dream, but I’m practical about it. I don’t sit daydreaming about things that are impossible. I set goals and then work out how to achieve them.”