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The Interview: Canada Can Create Jobs, Set a ‘Signpost’ for the World in Shift to 100% Renewable Electricity, Hornung Says

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Robert Hornung has been president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association since 2003. Last week, CanWEA and the Canadian Solar Industries Association announced they are merging to form the Canadian Renewable Energy Association, with Hornung at the helm. He talked to The Energy Mix about a massive moment of opportunity for solar, wind, and storage, and the importance of speaking with a common voice.

The Energy Mix: Are you calling this a merger, and what do you see as the advantages?

Hornung: I wish we could say we were the first. In Australia, the associations came together several years ago now in the Clean Energy Council, which has demonstrated that the technologies have a lot of common interests and can cooperate and work together.

So yes, this is a merger that recognizes the natural synergies between the technologies to give ourselves a more powerful voice in advocacy and communications—and frankly, to present a more comprehensive solution and product that addresses the concerns we’re increasingly hearing around reliability. The new association is not focused just on wind and solar energy, but also on energy storage. So we can talk about offering solutions all the way from the residential homeowner, in terms of solar PV and batteries, to large, utility-scale projects. It captures the full potential of the technologies.

The Mix: Why is this happening now? 

Hornung: We’ve now clearly demonstrated that these technologies are mainstream and cost-competitive. They’re not marginal on the sidelines anymore. We’re front and centre in any discussion of building new electricity supply. But the question we always hear is reliability, and we’re much better able to address those concerns when we have synergistic technologies working together, as opposed to any individual technology on its own.

You’re also seeing this transition within the industry itself. There are fewer wind energy companies. There are now renewable energy companies that are often involved in all these different technologies. So just as we’re coming together, many of those companies are doing the same thing.

The Mix: With the federal government considering green investment as the cornerstone of its COVID recovery package, Stewart Elgie from Smart Prosperity is pointing out that they won’t get to do this twice. How can CanREA maximize the renewable energy industry’s input to the recovery discussions?

Hornung: We’re talking to the federal government and exchanging ideas about what could be included in a stimulus package, on our own and in collaboration with other organizations. It’s clear, for example, that any stimulus package needs to have a strong focus on energy efficiency, which we fully support. And if you’re doing a whole bunch of retrofits, you shouldn’t just think about energy efficiency, but expand that to energy self-sufficiency and independence, including the behind-the-meter [supply] options that are available.

On the utility side, it’s a slower process to deliver things because of the way electricity markets are structured. But the one place you can move quickly is Alberta, because of its energy markets, and they’ve also been hit hardest by the recession and have the most greenhouse gas-intensive grid, so investments there will have the greatest impact. 

So we were pleased to see the federal government issue a Request for Information recently to see if they could procure renewable energy, not only to power federal facilities in Alberta, but also to secure renewable energy credits for federal facilities across the country. We think that’s an entirely positive initiative.

The Mix: What will success look like? What federal policy or fiscal measures will the industry need to maximize its role in the recovery?

Hornung: There’s a real opportunity to invest in the infrastructure that will be required. A lot of that discussion will focus on [grid] transmission, not only increased interprovincial interties, but also increased transmission in renewable resource areas within provinces. If you look at any study of how we get to an 80 to 90% greenhouse gas reduction, you need much, much more electricity to phase out fossil fuels in transportation, in buildings, in industry. And the only way you get that is with much, much more transmission.

We’re also thinking about innovation. There are areas in energy storage, for example, where Canada is frankly quite a bit behind. We should use this stimulus package to encourage deployment of these projects, even on a pilot basis, across the country.

So, yes, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But the negative of not doing it right now is that we’ll still be making a bunch of investment decisions, and in the electricity sector, investments are very long-lived. So if we make the wrong type of investments now, we close off options and make things harder for ourselves. That’s why this moment is so important.

The Mix: How do solar and wind contribute to the just transition out of fossil fuel employment that the climate community has been asking for in the federal recovery package?

Hornung: The good news is that both wind and solar are very significant job creators. In the United States over the last five years, wind turbine technician has been one of the five fastest-growing occupations.

Even more important, investing in renewables creates a lot of jobs in every part of Canada. We’re blessed with incredible renewable resource potential spread right across the country, and the projects have two characteristics. Many of the larger ones will be built in rural areas that have been dependent on natural resource development that goes up and down, where renewables can provide some consistency. And on the behind-the-meter side, you’re looking at something every community can do. Every home can be more energy self-sufficient, and every home with a roof oriented the right way can put up solar. So there are incredible job gains, and you see it in groups like Iron and Earth that are actively seeking to facilitate the transition for oil and gas workers into these rapidly-growing clean energy technologies.

The Mix: If you situate yourself in 2045 or 2050, look around at Canada’s 100% renewable energy system, and backcast to today, what did CanREA do that successfully laid the foundation for what we needed to get done?

Hornung: We always talk about the cost-competitiveness of these technologies, how the cost trendlines are continuing to go down. But cost won’t be the only determinant.

If we’re going to get there, we need policy change. We need regulatory change. We need to change the way electricity markets are structured to ensure there’s a level playing field that allows these technologies to compete on a fair basis. If that’s the case, I’m 100% sure these technologies will win the competition. 

But we’re not there yet. Our electricity markets are designed in such a way that energy storage projects are challenged to draw value out of the market. The market doesn’t recognize or compensate the services they provide, so there’s no incentive to build. We still have electricity markets built around large, conventional power plants, and as you move to a much more diversified and decentralized system, to a world of “prosumers”, this system won’t get us there. When we’ve seen massive advances in these technologies, it’s been because of massive reforms in the way we structure and regulate to allow them to be exploited to the fullest.

The Mix: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Hornung: Compared to most other countries, Canada is so well positioned to make the transition to a 100% renewable electricity grid that it’ll be a real problem if we can’t do it. But in getting it done, we can demonstrate true global leadership and provide a signpost to the world for how you get there. That will bring economic benefits to Canada because of the experience, knowledge, and technology that we’ll be able to share with other countries. So we have a tremendous opportunity, but like all opportunities, it doesn’t just fall into your lap. You have to work for it, and we hope that’s what this new organization can contribute to.”

Follow-up: @CanWEA, @CanadianSIA, @roberthornung2

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