Dispatches from COP26: If Canada wants to meet its emissions targets, it needs to support clusters of innovations

Let’s re-examine how our policies can move towards supporting complementary low-carbon technologies

Glasgow, Scotland – As a researcher of just transitions in energy, I have made my way to the UN’s climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow with the University of Victoria delegation. While government representatives are negotiating at the conference, official and unofficial side events are looking to inform delegates about the latest climate impacts and responses. While I’m here, I’m paying careful attention to critical updates on technology deployment, justice and equity in energy transitions. My hope is that leaders will find ways to replace fossil fuels and commit to renewable energy systems. 

This year’s negotiations are focused on securing more ambitious carbon-reduction pledges, or nationally determined contributions (NDCs, which must be ratcheted up every five years in line with the Paris Agreement). Earlier this year, Canada increased its NDC to cut emissions 40 to 45% below 2005 levels by 2030, up from the 2016 target of 30% below 2005. Canada’s plan for meeting its more aggressive NDC includes cutting energy waste, pricing carbon and decarbonizing transportation through zero-emissions vehicles, among other initiatives. This should significantly reduce energy demand and waste while boosting electrification of our economy with renewable energy production. However, my research on renewable energy transitions around the world suggests that for this plan to be cost-effective and successful, Canada will need to introduce policies that support the deployment of clusters of complementary low- and no-carbon technologies to the market.

Take Canada’s buildings, which are responsible for a large portion of the country’s emissions. Past building retrofitting efforts of EnerGuide for Houses and ecoEnergy programs provided incentives for multiple innovations, although homeowners tended to favour singular innovations, mainly natural gas furnace replacements. This yielded only about 20 to 30% average reductions of a building’s energy use. On the other hand, deep energy retrofits can achieve energy reductions of 50 to 80% through the clustering of technologies, such as insulation of basements, ceilings and walls; ventilation; and the adoption of new mechanical systems, such as heat pumps and solar panels for electricity and hot water. Clustering these technologies effectively drives down both energy use and costs of implementing building retrofits. 

Sources of renewable energy are often criticized for their lack of predictability. However, combining complementary renewable energy technologies that produce electricity at different times (i.e. the wind is blowing more when the sun is shining less, and vice versa) has been shown to smooth out renewable power production, integrate more renewable power into the grid, and drive down the size and costs of energy storage. Even so, policies to support combining these technologies are not present in Canada. 

Renewable power can be made more reliable by adding other innovations, such as allowing electricity sharing between consumers through “peer to peer trading” and encouraging consumers to change their demand when renewable power production is low or high (known as demand response and load balancing). Clustering renewable energies with these innovations not only improves the reliability of renewable power; it reduces the costs of implementation and provides resilience for local economic development. In addition, using electric cars as back-up power sources in people’s homes can help privatize and distribute some of the costs of the infrastructure support for clusters.

Canada will need to introduce policies that support the deployment of clusters of complementary low- and no-carbon technologies to the market.

While clustering technology effectively improves reliability and drives down both energy use and costs of implementation, in my 13 years of research I have yet to come across any jurisdictions in developed economies that have implemented policies that support the diffusion of complementary renewable energy sources. In Japan, the solar lobby prevented the widespread adoption of wind power that could have complemented solar power. Vietnam has one of the most successful solar energy programs in the world, but its almost exclusive focus on this type of renewable energy has disrupted the reliability of its electricity system.

The European Union is currently rolling out legislation to support the implementation of renewable energy with other innovations like energy storage, peer-to-peer trading and virtual power plants (VPPs are networks of decentralized, medium-scale power-generating units such as wind farms and solar parks). However, this legislation still does not explicitly support the diffusion of complementary renewable energy sources. 

The importance of the widespread adoption of renewable energy in NDCs is underscored again and again at COP26, by academics, environmental advocates, politicians and business leaders alike. The We Mean Business Coalition, which is hosting a pavilion at COP26, is calling for the ambitious goals of ending coal and scaling up renewables now. On November 2, the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet – which includes the Rockefeller Foundation, IKEA and the World Bank Group – launched a goal of reaching one billion people with renewable power. 

Canada is rightly investing $964 million in smart renewable energy projects, some of which will support VPPs, and this will need to be ramped up to successfully electrify  most of our transportation and energy systems. During September’s federal election campaign, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party promised a Dutch-inspired model of deep energy retrofits for buildings. Now is the time to re-examine how our economic and regulatory policies across federal and provincial jurisdictions can move toward supporting complementary low- and no-carbon technologies that can provide reliable, affordable energy to communities while achieving our NDC under the Paris Agreement with confidence. Lobbying and advocacy works, and those pushing for change can call for the rollout of clusters of innovations that support our collective future. 

Christina Hoicka is an associate professor of geography and civil engineering at the University of Victoria. She is attending COP26 as an observer. 

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