We often talk in terms of expunging fossil fuels from our energy diet, which can frame the discussion in a negative and at times contentious light. More often we should be talking in terms of adding clean energy, and acknowledge the otherworldly progress it’s made without anyone noticing.
While the rest of us have been ferociously debating the merits and malevolence of fossil fuels and accompanying industries over the last decade, the so-called “clean energy sector” has positioned itself not only to replace oil and gas, but also its corner of the Canadian economy, jobs and all.
According to a series of 2019 reports from Clean Energy Canada, a thinktank with British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University, national “green collar” workers numbered 298,000 in 2017, a 16 per cent increase from 2010 which includes renewable energy production, distribution, storage, energy efficient construction and electric transportation. It’s growing faster than the Canadian economy as a whole, and investment swells with each passing year. By 2020, the number of green collar jobs will likely have risen to 398,000, given growth and the inclusion of a few more rising industries.
While comparisons are imperfect, these same reports place employment in the fossil fuel sector – which incorporates fossil fuel production, fossil fuel electricity generation and value added industries like trucking and equipment manufacturing – at around 1 million jobs as of 2017, a number which is projected to drop 0.5 per cent a year between now and 2030. Over that same decade the clean energy sector is projected to grow 3.4 per cent per year. The final tally from this simultaneous rise and fall will be 989,700 jobs in the fossil fuel sector, and 559,400 in clean energy by 2030, a dramatic swing of the needle by any measure.
Comparisons are tricky for a variety of reasons. The big one is the inherent difference between traditional and emerging energy sectors. Fossil fuels, for example, depend on extraction and use, while renewables depend on generation and efficiency. The clean energy sector doesn’t just entail the production of wind power, but the energy efficiency of the homes and cars using it, attacking the problem from both sides. As a consequence, the jobs attributed to the clean energy sector don’t just include the technicians and engineers turning out wind power, but those contractors and mechanics determined to perfect the energy efficient homes and vehicles of the future.
What’s interesting about our expanding clean energy sector is that it’s not localized, as with jobs in the Alberta Oil Sands or myriad pipeline projects. Clean energy is everywhere, from BC companies specializing in electric cars to wind farms on PEI. As of 2017, Atlantic Canada’s clean energy sector alone employed 12,123 green collar workers and attracted $3.8 billion in annual investment, an opportunity we have a fiscal and moral obligation to seize and nurture.
The rise of green collar workers is a global phenomena, concentrated in China, India, the United States and European Union, by virtue of their towering economies, population densities and willingness to accept solar and wind at scale, but it’s still happening everywhere else. According to a 2019 report from the International Renewable Energy Agency, as of 2018 there were 11 million green collar workers across the planet and climbing.
Anyone who tells you a carbon neutral future cannot work, built and powered by things like low carbon cement, electric cars, solar, wind and tidal power, are suffering from an outdated worldview, formed when renewable power was prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient, when electric cars couldn’t get you to work without a charge, when fossil fuels were the only kid on the block and promised riches forevermore, but we no longer live in that world. The technologies and industries at play have matured and promise, in no uncertain terms, to dominate in the near future. According to Natural Resources Canada, renewables produce 67 per cent of Canada’s electricity (as in, what throws through power lines), and 17.3 per cent of its overall energy use (when you incorporate home heating, cars and whathaveyou, typically using fossil fuels). That’s not a bad foundation to build on.
The rising stars are solar power, which grew from 16.7 megawatts in 2005 to 3,040 megawatts in 2018; and wind, going from 444 megawatts in 2004 to 12,817 megawatts in 2018. It should be noted that a mere 12 per cent of Nova Scotia’s electricity mix came from these two sources in 2017, the largest minority, 47.9 per cent, coming from coal. But even in the intervening two years, solar has grown 300 per cent provincially, thanks in large part to government programs. The renewable revolution is here as well, even if we have some catching up to do.
Every report I’ve referenced in this column makes its predictions based on government policies national or international which have been at least announced up to 2019, and attribute the actual speed of our shift to a clean energy economy to the strength of future legislation, or their repeal by regressive governments, such as in Ontario where electric car rebates and renewable supports were scrapped. We need to make sure we end up on the right side of history, and buy in now with every tool in our government’s arsenal.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.
Shown above is a wind farm in Summerside, PEI. Wind accounts for 97.9 per cent of PEI’s electricity mix.
Zack Metcalfe photo