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A clean energy future is possible now

By: 
Bradley Hughes

May 26, 2013

The government, the fossil fuel lobby and their media voices tell us that clean, renewable energy is utopian, that we lack the technology and expertise and that it would cost too much. None of this is true.
 
Stubborn reliance on inefficient and planet-destroying power is a decision based solely on one thing: corporate petro-profits trump everything else. This is purely a political decision. Canada is twelfth in the world in terms of CO2 production per capita, and second in the world in terms of energy use per person. But it is possible to produce all the energy we need entirely from renewable sources. Here is a rough calculation of how we might do that.
 
Energy use in Canada
There is good news and bad news in the quest to transform our energy systems to a carbon free system. The good news is that nearly 65 per cent of our electricity supply already comes from renewable hydro power. The bad news is that electricity only accounts for 25 per cent of our total energy use. Fossil fuels are still used for things like transportation and heating. So over all, only 16 per cent of our energy currently comes from renewable sources.
 
No matter how we produce our energy we need to reduce our destruction of the planet in other ways as well. Currently the global average for per capita power consumption is 2000 watts* (see note below). It is possible to lower our energy use to this level without lowering our standard of living and it's possible to raise up the standard of living of those below this level without increasing their energy use. Canada's current power use per capita is 7200 W. The Novatlantis Institute in Switzerland has shown how their country can lower their consumption from 6500 W per person down to 2000 W per person. This can be done by improving transit and making workplaces closer to living sites so trips are smaller.
 
Since the 1970's there have been houses in Canada that require no heat, relying instead on efficient design, insulation and solar energy. We can build new homes along these lines and retrofit older ones to require less heat. We can produce more food locally and use less artificial fertilizers and pesticides that require large amounts of energy to produce.
 
In the 2000 W society, our population of 35 million would need a total of 2200 petejoules (PJ) of energy per year. In addition to our existing 1350 PJ per year of hydro power, we can produce the rest from clean renewable energy sources.
 
Nuclear and biofuels are not the answer
The Trottier Energy Futures Project has recently published An Inventory of Low-Carbon Energy for Canada, where the authors calculate the likely available energy per year we could harvest from renewable sources in Canada. Their inventory includes photo-voltaic solar panels, wind turbines, wave power, tidal power, geothermal plants, new and current hydro facilities, expanded nuclear power and energy from biomass. If we include the estimated energy from nuclear and biomass we can easily produce as much energy as we are using now.
 
However, nuclear power is not safe to operate and there is no safe way to store the wastes. On top of that it is possible to make weapons from the wastes for thousands of years after they are stored, so all nuclear power stations are also potential bomb making plants. Growing crops to create biofuels or using farm “waste” to do so will only increase the already too great burden on our planet from agriculture. So biofuels and nuclear power play no role in the following calculation.
 
In 2009 Greenpeace published energy evolution: a sustainable Canada energy outlook, in which they include estimates of the costs of the various renewable power sources. In both publications the assumption is that there will be a gradual transition between now and 2030 and that the transition will be encouraged by public policy, but largely implemented by profit seeking businesses.
 
In order to get an estimate of the numbers of new power plants we need, I took the power estimates of each from the 2009 Scientific American article, “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables,” by Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucch.
 
Combining all of this gives an estimate of the quantity and cost of renewable energy sources required for a 100 per cent renewable energy in Canada. The total energy provided in this case is more than is necessary for a 2000 W society for Canada's current population of 35 million people. It is enough for either 35 million people who use 2300 W or 41 million people who use only 2000 W. This estimate leaves out the costs of improved transit, housing and so on that would get us down to 2000 W per person.
 
The money is there: wasted on war and corporate handouts
The cost of building this infrastructure is around $186 billion, neglecting the fact that as we build more solar panels and wind turbines, etc, the cost per unit will decrease. That is around ten per cent of Canada's GDP, not a small sum. Nonetheless we can still come up with the money.
 
The federal government first under the Liberals and then continuing under the Tories has spent billions on military hardware. In 2007 they bought 100 used tanks to continue the occupation of Afghanistan for a cost of $1.3 billion. The five submarines that they bought from the British in 1998 are not all operational yet and so far have cost $1 billion. The planned purchase of 60 new fighter planes is projected to cost at least $30 billion. The 28 new helicopters are years overdue and billions over budget and will cost at least $6.2 billion, and the ship building program is budgeted at $35 billion for 31 ships, of which $25 billion has been spent so far. This spending and commitments to spend totals $73.5 billion, or almost half of what we would need to build a clean energy system. Under the Canada Frist Defense Strategy, the Canadian government intends to spend $490 billion on the military over 20 years.
 
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, Harper assured us that Canadian banks were fine and unlike most other countries did not need to be bailed out. Like most things that Tories say this was an outright lie. According to investment group Wellington Financial, in late 2008 and early 2009 the Tory government bought $125 billion worth of the most risky mortgagees from Canadian banks.
 
The combination of military hardware and bank bailouts surpasses the money need for clean energy infrastructure. Clearly, when the goal is war or the profits of the 1%, Tories and Liberals both have no trouble finding the money.
 
There are a few other places we could find the money: there are 67 Canadians who are “worth” more than $1 billion each. If we left them each with $10 million, you know, so they could keep a roof over their heads, we would have over $130 billion. The big six banks in Canada had profits of $30 billion, so a few years of their profits would help fund energy transition as well. Oil and gas revenues in Canada are $100 billion a year according to a report by ACR Financial Corp. The same report estimates that between 2011 and 2015, $275 billion will be invested in the production of oil and gas in Canada.
 
Indigenous sovereignty, green jobs and ecological revolution
When we shut down this industry all of that investment will become worthless and all of those revenues disappear. The 1% will not allow such a staggering loss without a fight.
 
This fight starts by supporting indigenous communities defending their land from tar sands, pipelines and Harper's colonial and corporate agenda. We also need a plan for climate jobs that can win over workers in the industry to take on their own bosses and demand better pay and conditions building a clean energy infrastructure.  Ultimately we need an ecological revolution to stop capitalism's war on people and the planet, and to transform society and our relationship with nature.
 
*A note on units.
A joule (J) is a measure of energy. Raising an apple about a meter requires you to expend about one joule of energy. A watt (W) is a measure of power - the rate at which energy is expended - if you slowly lift the apple so it takes a second to lift it through a meter, the whole time you will be expending power at a rate of one watt. A petajoule (PJ) is 1,000,000,000,000,000 joules. That is enough energy to run 10,000 average Canadian cars for a year.
 
If you like this article, register now for Marxism 2013: Revolution In Our Time, a weekend-long conference of ideas to change the world. Sessions include "Indigenous sovereignty, Idle No More and the fight against Harper", "Energy revolution and social revolution" and "Marx's ecology."

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