From: Issue 38
Cutting the Red Tape to Building a Pan-Canadian Electricity Superhighway
This article is adapted from a Manning Centre presentation, found here.
I was organizing Wall Street protests back in 2004, before it was cool. These days, I prefer to spend my time with cabinet ministers, bond market regulators and institutional investors trying to remove financial and regulatory barriers to the multi-trillion dollar green economy.
Nothing about my priorities has changed. I still want an economy that is sustainable and just, but I have since internalized Einstein’s wisdom: insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
That’s why I was a bit ticked last month at the eco-triumphalism surrounding President Barack Obama’s decision to deny the application for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, following a concerted campaign that included 12,000 protesters forming a human chain around the White House.
I recognize that temporarily delaying this highway for oil sands was the culmination of a great deal of hard work and campaigning by dozens of North America’s top environmental groups. Also, that it holds symbolic value for a movement that has been handed some savage defeats since the collapse of the Copenhagen climate talks.
But the math is really depressing, and the euphoria over such a small and likely Pyrrhic victory hurts more – it gets to the root of the increasing irrelevance of an eco-movement bent on tearing down small parts of the problem rather than building up big parts of the solution.
Even if we killed the oil sands, it would wipe out just 50 to 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year at their projected height. No small beans, but with two billion tonnes of carbon pollution coming out of North American coal-fired power plants every year, it wouldn`t be even close to good enough.
So why are environmental groups – with the exception of the David Suzuki Foundation’s Trottier Energy Futures Project – spending so much time stopping this oil highway, and so little time starting the clean electricity highway that will enable Canadian green energy to replace American brown energy?
Canada is far more than just another petro-state. Canada’s annual oil exports to the U.S. currently total about $70 billion, or 17 per cent of U.S. oil consumption, while Canada has enough economic clean electricity generation potential (via hydro and wind with pumped storage) to meet the continent’s electricity needs many times over. However, Canada’s clean electricity exports to the U.S. currently total just $4 billion per year, or one per cent of U.S. electricity consumption.
Why are these numbers so far apart? The disparity is not due to a lack of U.S. hunger for clean electricity. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) projects that over 260,000 megawatts of new variable power will be needed for the continent`s bulk power system in the next decade – with the vast majority being consumed in the United States. The big reason is that, in contrast to the extensive network of oil pipelines, there are almost no electricity pipelines to get the electrons to market.
There are several barriers to building a clean energy pan-Canadian highway with multiple north-south chutes, but the biggest one is red tape. New grid roll-outs are so bogged down in red tape that the timescales would test the patience of the pharaohs who used to build pyramids – whoever starts a project is unlikely to be alive by the time it comes to fruition.
The U.S. has already recognized this problem and moved to cut some of this red tape with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which has a provision to invoke so-called National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors. Here’s how it works: the U.S. Department of Energy is mandated to conduct periodic studies on national electric transmission congestion and to designate National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors if deemed appropriate.