One of our newest members, Mitchell Beer, is the president of Smarter Shift, a company that uses online content generation and social media to tell stories about energy, climate change, and the shift to a low-carbon economy. Mitchell recently spoke with E2 about pressing energy issues in his home country of Canada, the history of renewable energy, and other topics:
You live and work in Canada. What’s going on with the tar sands?
They’re trying to extract as much as possible, as fast as possible, from northern Alberta. The basic approach of our government seems to be that we have this resource, and we’re going to get it. The government has gutted the federal Fisheries Act, gutted environmental protection laws, all for the sake of extracting and transporting fossil fuels.
Now we’re finding that charitable environmental organizations are under intense scrutiny, to the extent that some critics are accusing our federal government of turning the Canada Revenue Agency into an arm of the hyper-partisan Prime Minister’s Office. Some charities have been subjected to multiple audits. These small organizations are putting thousands of hours into responding to legal questions, and that means they barely have the resources to do their jobs.
What about Keystone XL?
At one point along the way in the Keystone XL drama, somebody in Canada’s federal structure began to lose confidence that the pipeline was a reliable win. So now you have a flurry of other proposals to ship Alberta oil to both Canadian coasts for transshipment overseas. Meanwhile, more and more oil is being transported by rail.
The other conversation that’s been going on for a while is whether KXL is the whole story or a symbol of a bigger fight. I think it’s a really interesting conversation. What it goes to is the fundamental problem of our demand for oil and gas – all of us, in Canada, the U.S., and beyond. Our fossil fuel industry makes a really good point, as far as it goes, when they say they’re just supplying the product we want to buy … and, by the way, how did we manage to drive or fly to that meeting last week? What they aren’t counting on is our ability as a society to make a rapid, massive transition to low- and zero-carbon energy. That transition is gaining ground. But so far, the fossil fuel industry is winning the bet.
So even if KXL is stopped, we still have very large pools of fossil fuels, and that worries a lot of people, since most of us still meet our demand for energy services by consuming fossil fuel products. The focus has to be back on how we scale up the alternatives – the work of companies like Tesla, the work of E2 members. It’s the effort to on one hand get clear about what’s happening on the fossil fuel side of the story, but not losing sight of the alternatives we must quickly transition toward. We win when we undercut demand for fossil fuels, lower the cost of energy alternatives, and become more energy efficient.
So what’s going on in Canada’s clean energy sector?
We have a real focus on the solutions, on what else is possible. We get the overall need to decarbonize. So right alongside the dominant narrative that Canada wants to be an energy superpower – which means more oil and more gas – there’s a much smarter, more sustainable effort under way for us to be a clean energy superpower. So many Canadians do understand that we’re on a tight deadline globally to get this done, so we’re seeing some successes.
There are a lot of good things going on in different provinces and municipalities. British Columbia is getting good results from its carbon tax. Ontario recently phased out the last of its coal-fired power plants.
In Ontario, where I live, the Green Energy Act is provincial legislation that establishes a feed-in tariff for clean energy development. It’s resulted in a significant uptick in wind and solar. It’s been controversial, needlessly controversial, but there’s a lot of renewable energy development in Ontario that would not have happened without the act.
What about energy efficiency?
The Ontario government actually declared energy efficiency its top priority through its Conservation First strategy. Whenever there is a need for more energy services, the province seeks out new energy supplies only at the point when energy efficiency is no longer the most cost-effective option.
Back in the 1970s, you were a reporter covering clean energy in Canada. What were the big issues facing the industry back then?
The first thing I would say is that the technology has improved so dramatically. It’s more mature and more cost-effective. But we were on the way, we were on the road. Scenarios then – what Amory Lovins in 1976 called a “soft energy path” – could have been plausibly completed by 2025. Not now, of course. But here’s what’s crazy-making, every single day: if the momentum we were building then had been allowed to continue, there’s a good chance we would never have had to use the words “climate,” “change,” and “crisis” in same sentence.
What was the turning point?
If work that Jimmy Carter’s administration started in the wake of the first OPEC oil crisis had been allowed to continue, we could have been so much farther along. But I remember just before the 1980 [U.S. presidential] election, at the Fifth National Passive Solar Conference in Amherst, Mass. – there was so much going on in the industry, but we knew we were in trouble. We knew Reagan was coming, and I can still remember our Washington correspondent, Chris Pope, filing his story on Reagan’s first budget when he tried to cut renewable energy funding 93 percent. Not in his first term! That was his first budget. That’s when the dream started to die. The technology is so much better now, but looking back, we were ready then.
What did people in the business do?
Those who stayed were incredibly heroic, and they made their way finding whatever opportunities, whatever openings they could. Others found work in peripheral or unrelated areas. But it’s just started to come home to me in the past few months: many of the folks who ended up leaving the field, not of their own choice, are now back in it in one form or another. A lot of those surrounding industries and sectors are now really some of the most important parts of the solution to climate change, since most of the best opportunities to quickly reduce carbon pollution are situated outside the energy sector itself.
Just look at green buildings. As soon as we say a green building is part of the solution, we’re in the construction trades, and we’re out of the energy industry. We know what to do in buildings, we’ve known what to do for a long time: but it’s going to take massive training for building tradespeople who not only need to know what to do. They also need to know why it matters to get it right. We can’t be driving nails through vapor barriers, and that means everyone on a job site needs to understand that a vapor barrier that works is an integral part of a climate solution. That’s not an energy sector issue, and it’s no longer a buildings sector issue. That’s a post-secondary training issue.
Given your experience in the industry, how do we ensure our transition to a clean energy future?
The question now is can we do it fast enough. I don’t remember anyone giving us any guarantees, but in spite of all the bad news and scary news, I’m actually more optimistic now than I was two or three years ago. We know it’s possible, we know it’s doable, we know it has to be done. I think we’ve got a really good shot if we keep our heads down, count our wins when we can, and just give it our best effort.
– Interview by Jeff Benzak, E2 Press Secretary