The sun could be starting to set on the fossil-fuel era as it rises on the age of clean energy. Decades from now, as historians attempt to draw a clear line between the two periods, 2015 may prove the most obvious point of demarcation.
The past 12 months saw the fossil-fuel divestment movement reach critical mass, witnessed a U.S. president put his political capital behind climate action, and marked the first time a sitting pope released an encyclical devoted to the issue of climate change — in effect, turning climate action into a moral obligation for the world’s billion-plus Roman Catholics.
Without question, the defining moment was the Paris climate summit in December, when 196 countries got together in an unprecedented show of unity and pledged to effectively decarbonize the global economy in the second half of the century. They also committed to holding global warming to “well below” 2 degrees C, the point at which many scientists believe climate change is likely to become an unmanageable, unimaginable threat to humanity.
“We are entering into the low-carbon age,” said French President Francois Hollande after the deal was approved. He called it a pivotal moment for a “powerful, irreversible movement.”
With a globally binding climate deal — as imperfect as it may be — here’s what Canadians should expect for the coming year.
Canada: A new climate plan
There are many questions Canada will need to answer in 2016, including how the country plans to move forward in line with commitments agreed to in Paris.
Will it keep emission-reduction targets established by the Harper government, or set more ambitious targets? Will it establish a floor on the price of carbon that all provinces will need to meet, albeit in their own way? (Not difficult, considering provinces representing 90 per cent of the population have already announced carbon-pricing plans.)
The Trudeau government has said it will earmark billions of dollars for climate-friendly infrastructure projects, from transit to clean energy. When will that money start flowing, and what will it fund? Will Trudeau follow through on his idea to finance infrastructure by issuing green bonds, and if so, how will this work? Will the plan include closer cooperation with the United States, and explore ways for Canada to export more clean electricity south of the border?
Trudeau vowed to meet with premiers and territorial leaders within 90 days of the Paris conference to hammer out a pan-Canadian framework for battling climate change. That means there’s a lot to be done over the next 10 weeks.
Out west: Low oil prices persist
Plunging crude prices pose problems for the Canadian dollar. Canadian exporters will benefit from the economic shift, but consumers will feel price hikes for imported products, from food to electronics to clothing. And a slowdown in the Alberta oil patch means financial pain for many. It’s why economic diversification will be a dominant theme in 2016, which may see oil prices fall even lower.
Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said during the Paris climate summit that weak demand for oil and rising supply spells a tough year ahead for the oil industry, which saw investment fall more than 20 per cent in 2015. More cutbacks are expected.
Birol expressed worry that low oil prices would slow the shift to a low-carbon economy. “We have been telling governments that it would be an historical mistake to lessen the support on renewables and efficiency as the price of fossil fuels become cheap.”
Ontario: A darker shade of green
Ontario released its own climate plan just before the start of the Paris climate summit. A carbon cap-and-trade program will be part of climate legislation introduced in 2016, according to the plan. The province also revealed a focus on reducing the carbon footprint of transportation and buildings, and on helping communities adapt to climate change.
But beyond high-level talk of boosting support for electric vehicles and pushing for more energy-efficient buildings, plenty of detail is still to come in 2016. What those details are, who they impact, and how initiatives are funded will dominate discussion and establish Ontario’s role in a pan-Canadian climate framework.
Ontario will also complete its first competitive procurement of large-scale solar and wind projects in 2016. For the first time, the province will get a chance to see the market-based cost for developing solar, which up to now has been heavily subsidized under the feed-in tariff program.
It’s also the first time Ontario Power Generation, in partnership with SunEdison, has been permitted to bid on large-scale renewable energy developments. OPG is hoping to win contracts to build three solar farms totaling 130 megawatts. If approved, solar panels will be installed on the grounds of decommissioned coal-fired power stations at Nanticoke and Lambton.
A wild card for 2016 is that Ontario will consider lifting a poorly justified moratorium on offshore wind development in the Great Lakes, but don’t hold your breath on that one.
A green year for business
Batteries: Energy storage proves its worth
There was a time not so long ago when Ontario’s power authority referred to advanced energy storage as an “interesting technology” worth monitoring. In other words, it was publicly acknowledged but privately dismissed.
A lot has changed in recent years. Lithium-ion batteries, for example, have followed the same cost-reduction curve as solar technology, and a number of other storage technologies — from flywheels to flow batteries to compressed-air systems — have made significant gains.
In California, fast-reacting natural gas “peaker” plants were once the gold standard for managing the variable nature of solar and wind and keeping supply and demand in balance. These days, utilities are just as likely to select energy storage for the job. It’s a path Ontario is looking to follow.
Beyond the utility, more homeowners and businesses are expected to kick the tires on energy storage in 2016, which is when Tesla Motors’ much-touted Powerwall battery system becomes available in Canada.
Automotive: Electric vehicle market gathers speed
General Motors surprised many in October when it said the battery system in its new Chevy Bolt all-electric car, which hits dealerships in 2016, costs around $145 per kilowatt-hour.
That’s a huge breakthrough, considering average costs were thought to be between $300 and $400. Citigroup, UBS and consultancy McKinsey predicted the $200 milestone would be hit sometime between 2017 and 2020, so GM’s revelation is eye-opening. Consider also that Citigroup has called $230 the point at which electric cars begin to pose a serious threat to conventional gasoline-fuelled vehicles.
Lower-cost EVs won’t be the only story in 2016 — consumers will also have much more variety. Chrysler is expected to introduce the first electric minivan in North America with the release of its Town & Country plug-in hybrid, while the Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in hybrid — a top-seller in Europe — will be the first electric SUV made available in Canada.
There are also rumours that Nissan might release its popular e-NV200 all-electric van in North America. More certain is that a new, longer-range Nissan Leaf with a plug-in hybrid option will become available. Hyundai and Kia will also introduce new plug-in models in 2016, and we’ll also get a first peak at Tesla’s long-awaited Model III mass-market sedan.
Solar: Firing up in Alberta
The best place in Canada to generate solar power is in southern Alberta, so when Premier Rachel Notley released her province’s climate plan in November, a collective cheer could be heard from the solar industry.
The plan calls for a carbon price, a cap on oil sands emissions and a phase-out of coal-fired power generation by 2030. The coal phase-out means the province will rely heavily on renewable energy, which within 15 years is expected to represent 30 per cent Alberta’s electricity mix.
Wind and hydropower will be a major part of that mix. The difference is that solar has never been taken seriously in Alberta. But the policy shift, combined with significant reductions in the cost of solar technology, will see the sun rise in Alberta in 2016. Already, power developer GTE Power plans to install nearly 60,000 solar panels just outside the community of Brooks. The project, to be built on 78 acres of land, will be capable of generating 15 megawatts on sunny days.
Protests: Powering up post-Paris
Environmentalists and other civil society groups are divided on the outcome of the Paris summit. Some believe the deal is a symbolic win that lays the foundation for strong climate action, while others say it is weak and lacks ambition. Climate justice groups have declared it a fraud.
Where they are united is in the belief that public protest and acts of civil disobedience are more important than ever, and that 2016 will see an increase in such actions. Their demand is a complete phase-out of all fossil fuel burning by 2050 by shifting dramatically to renewable energy.
In Paris, activist groups such as 350.org and Greenpeace International warned of large worldwide protests during a week in May marked by fossil-fuel blockades, massive street demonstrations, and the occupation of oil and coal company headquarters. Even banks that finance fossil fuel projects will be targeted.
The Keystone XL protests will look tame compared to what we’ll see in 2016. When he rejected Keystone, U.S. President Barack Obama brought renewed energy to a movement that now appears unstoppable.
– This article is part of a series produced in partnership by the Toronto Star and Tides Canada to address a range of pressing climate issues in Canada leading up to and following the UN Paris climate summit. Tides Canada is supporting this partnership to increase public awareness and dialogue around the impacts of climate change on Canada’s economy and communities. The Toronto Star has full editorial control and responsibility to ensure stories are rigorously edited in order to meet its editorial standards.