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Greening Canada's electricity grid from the ground up

CBC, December 9, 2011

While Canada was being pannedat the UN Climate talks in Durban, South Africa, this week for our lack of action towards reducing carbon emissions, events in Toronto provided hope that a low-carbon future is possible - thanks to efforts from one of the fastest growing industries in the country.

The Solar Canada 2011 Conferenceattracted more than 5,000 delegates from industry, government and grass roots organizations to showcase and promote solar technology. The conference centre was buzzing with energy, literally. Everyone there could see the tremendous growth potential, both for the people marketing the technology and those investing in it. The industry believes it will provide 35,000 jobs and displace up to 30 million tones of carbon by 2015.

Both photovoltaic solar, which turn sunlight directly into electricity, and solar thermal, which provides heating and hot water, are among the fastest growing sectors of the economy and show no signs of slowing down.Those who invest in solar systems find that, while the initial costs can be high, the return on investment is fast - often three to five years because of the rising cost of conventional fuels.

It's a win-win for the green economy.

At the same time, new research into areas such as solar quantum dotsat the University of Toronto holds the promise of reducing the cost and improving the efficiency of solar voltaic energy to make it even more economically attractive.

So, while the federal government argues that reducing carbon emissions will harm the economy, this group is proving exactly the opposite.The greening of the country is strong and coming from the ground up.

On an interesting note, at the International Conference on CANDU Maintenance held in the basement of the same conference centre, the people who run CANDU nuclear reactors were having their much smaller, more subdued annual meeting.They were feeling the drop in public confidence following the accident at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant in Japan.

The location of the two groups, one above the other in the same building, made the solar people feel that they were above nuclear, while the nuclear group felt that they were holding the solar folks up.

It's unfortunate that these three events - the political talks in Durban, the green industry meeting and the nuclear industry conference - were all separate from each other. It would make more sense to have everyone in the same room to outline a clear and realistic picture of the future for energy in Canada, because in fact, we need them all.

The solar industry admits that, even when combined with wind power, they will never provide much more than a quarter of the country's energy needs. The nuclear people know that they provide the reliable base load that keeps the lights on at night.So does the elephant in the room, the fossil fuel industry.

So rather than compete with each other and play the good-guy bad-guy roles, why not have a cross-disciplinary energy summit? One where the economy and the environment can be discussed by all concerned, because after all, when it comes to doing something about climate change, it's all about energy.

A realistic, economically viable roadmap to, say, the year 2050, that includes solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, geothermal, biomass and any other energy generation system, could be developed and agreed upon.Once the roadmap is clear, then the politicians can be told about it.

The idea is to move away from the polarized, political rhetoric and environmental grandstanding taking place at the UN climate talks and towards a brighter (pun intended) future that everyone can benefit from. Maybe then we'd see progress rather than becoming stalled in deadlocks.Financial markets thrive on competition, but co-operation doesn't hurt either.

This roadmap may not save the world from climate change, but it would change Canada's international reputation from an embarrassment to a shining example of environmental leadership.

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