February 27, 2016 9:00 am

Renewable energy in Saskatchewan: The untapped resource

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REGINA – The oil and gas sector has been humming in Saskatchewan for decades. We’re well known for it worldwide, but in environmental circles, we’re also known for our untapped renewable resources.

“We’ve got the best solar resource in all of Canada in Southern Saskatchewan,” Peter Prebble, director of environmental policy for the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, said.

“We do have an excellent wind resource. It’s arguably the best in the country,” James Glennie, president of SaskWind, said.

Even so, only 2.8 per cent of our energy comes from wind power, and less than one per cent comes from solar. We rely heavily on coal, widely known as a dirty form of energy since it generates high greenhouse gas emissions.

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The province has doubled down on their coal-fired production by directing green initiatives to a new technology called, carbon capture and storage (CCS). But the Boundary Dam experimental facility has failed to meet quotas and advocates say coal should be phased out.

In December, the UN organized an agreement between 195 countries to be rid of fossil fuels by 2050. It’s a first-of-its-kind agreement designed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

“It’s time to move towards a renewable energy future in this province and around the world,” Prebble said.

SaskPower has laid out a plan to transition the grid to 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030. It’ll rely heavily on wind to achieve a 12 per cent target over 15 years.

It’s a good start, but not aggressive enough for advocates who point to nearby states with similar weather patterns. North Dakota’s grid is 17 per cent wind energy, and South Dakota was among the highest in North America at 25 per cent.

“So 22 per cent is not particularly aggressive. But, given the institutional barriers it is good,” Glennie said.

“We could theoretically generate 100 per cent of our electricity from wind, but the question then becomes what is the technical challenges and what is the cost.”

SaskPower already plans to spend $1.5 billion to get us to 22 per cent. Meantime, SaskWind is trying to increase the flow by starting what’s already become popular in European countries; community wind projects. They’re hoping for 10,000 investors to buy into a wind farm at $100 per share.

“What it allows people to do is individually benefit from wing electricity,” Glennie said.

” They invest money, and we pay a dividend. It’s like a simple share transaction.”

An investment that aims to pay out the dividend and pay-off its capital cost over ten to 15 years.

“The experience of Germany and Denmark is that where you have broad community ownership, there is strong support for these community projects,” he said.
Solar power, however, is a more expensive ask.

“A typical residential situation is under $20,000,” Sound Solar Systems Inc. vice president, Brooke Longpre said.

That would cover a typical five-kilowatt install of about 20 solar panels. It will give you 6500 kilowatt hours per year, taking a big chunk out of any monthly power bill, but it’ll take a long time for the investment to pay off, even if a homeowner takes advantage of a 20 per cent solar installation rebate from SaskPower.

“Up until now we really haven’t had much government support in terms of the solar industry in Saskatchewan,” Longpre said.

“I think mainly, it’s people on the ground who are wanting to do something and be part of the movement, if you will, of energy reform.”

That’s a problem according to Saskatchewan’s environmental society.

“The best public policy in the world has been driven by the Europeans,” Prebble said.

“They’ve really made renewable energy a priority, and have invested significantly in it. As a result you see solar taking off in a big way, and Germany doesn’t have a good solar resource.”

Seven per cent of the German population, or approximately 5.6 million people’s electricity needs are being met with solar power, and they have about a sixth of the solar resource that Saskatchewan does.

“You got to make it a bit more attractive in Saskatchewan for businesses to invest in solar energy,” Prebble suggests.

Currently, if a business installs solar panels and produces more energy than it’s using, they get paid just over six cents per every kilawatt hour they feed back into the grid. It’s not exactly a money making venture.

“We’d like to see the provincial government offer a better price for when people do produce electricity,” Prebble said.

Once homeowners and businesses are more closely tied to their electricity source, they’ll likely think about it differently, and be more willing to conserve energy.

“It doesn’t really make sense to waste a bunch of energy inside the home, if we’re trying to maximize what’s on the home,” Longpre explains.

“Electricity 30 years ago was just a commodity,” Glennie said.

“It was just this thing that came out of a hole in the wall and nobody really knew what it was. But, I think the perception in these more advanced markets is that electricity is very much a service industry.”

So, how quickly could Saskatchewan transition to green energy if the political will was there?

“Oh, I think we could see huge changes in Saskatchewan in a decade,” Prebble estimates.

What would we lose? For one, the oil and gas sector would shrink dramatically.

“I would say the oil and gas sector has already destroyed a lot of jobs with the collapse in oil prices. So the question is not, ‘will it destroy jobs in the oil and gas sector?’ but, ‘will it create jobs?'” Glennie asks.

He points to California data that suggests the loss of jobs in the oil sector in that state has been largely off-set by the gain of jobs in the green energy sector. But, there’s no denying that Saskatchewan is far more closely tied with the oil sector than California was.

The Solar Foundation, US Department of Energy, US Bureau of Labor Statistics

The Solar Foundation, US Department of Energy, US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Nonetheless, with the UN target of phasing out fossil fuels by 2050, and the federal government considering carbon taxes, there’s no denying something needs to be done.

“There really is no reason why we can’t meet the vast majority of our electricity needs in Saskatchewan with renewable power if we turn our minds to it,” said Prebble confidently.

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