Thinking outside the box about renewable energy

This letter from Yukon NDP leader Liz Hanson was published in the Whitehorse Star on January 12th 2016.

Sometimes, the most visionary public policy ideas are right under our noses – and sometimes we need to look a little further for the next big thing.

Just before the Yukon delegation took off for the Climate Change conference in Paris (COP 21), the German Embassy in Ottawa invited Canadian delegates to participate in an Energy policy study tour. The embassy kindly offered to cover our travel costs.

The Canadian team included a federal Member of Parliament and former cabinet minister, a senior federal official from Natural Resources Canada, a senior Alberta government official, representatives from the David Suzuki Foundation and Environmental Defence, the climate policy manager for the City of Vancouver as well as a professor of social work from the University of Calgary.

The focus of the tour was to gain an understanding of Energiewende, Germany’s transition to a low-carbon and nuclear energy-free economy. Through all of the conversations we had, the importance of government’s role in setting – and then achieving – specific targets for the growth of renewable energy and the reduction of carbon emissions was front and centre. This focus is more impressive when one considers the central nature of coal and nuclear energy in Germany.

Over four days I gained a new understanding of German efficiency and the ability to maximize the use of, and almost expand, the hours in a day. We met with members of the Bundestag, the German parliament, leading NGOs, utility companies and even transmission line companies.

As I flew into Berlin I noticed many small clusters of wind turbines. It turns out that, in addition to constructing large-scale wind and solar parks, the government actively encourages people to participate in the energy transition by putting solar panels on their roofs or by creating locally-owned community generation through energy cooperatives.

We met with a dynamic young electrical engineer who is also a member of the North Rhine-Westphalia legislature in northwest Germany’s industrial heartland. She reiterated the German belief that their future is renewable. She used the example of a North Rhine district called Steinfurt where local authorities made a simple calculation: the amount of money spent for any kind of energy amounts to about 1.2 billion Euros, 90% of which leaves the district as payment for oil, gas and coal. Steinfurt decided it does not want to lose this spending power, and in 2007 the district resolved to gain energy independence by 2050. I was impressed by the decision to work with Steinfurt stakeholders like local banks, power companies, craftsmen and local firms to develop a regional energy management plan that also recognized that finding solutions to possible obstacles is important as a transfer of knowledge. Rather than shying away from the more challenging issues of transport and heat, Steinfurters have included them as necessary elements in their plan.

I could not help but think that Yukon is poised to make the same determination for our energy future.

Over the course of our tour, we repeatedly heard about the importance of civil society in pressing governments and energy corporations to make the move towards a renewable energy future.

Back home, I hope to connect with Yukon College’s Northern Research Centre to follow up on some proposals for ongoing exchange between Yukon and Germany. A more formal dialogue seems like a natural fit given our well-established connections: a strong core of German nationals have chosen to make Yukon home is supported by a strong tourism sector that offers Yukoners and Germans access to each other’s homelands.

It was exciting to be part of discussions that challenged what Yukoners have been told is the status quo. To hear companies charged with transmitting Germany’s electricity say that, just as we have been told for years we thought it was too expensive but yes, of course we can change the way we think. As one transmission operator put it: renewables have changed the whole way of operating the grid; it does not take decades. It made me think that our Yukon energy and development corporation boards should take part in an upcoming tour being offered this spring.

Sometimes we just have to think outside the box we have built for ourselves. When we consider the possible, we can have the kind of Yukon – and the kind of planet – we want.


Photo: wilsonhui / flickr. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.