German enviro chief's message to Ontarians: "Be patient"
Published On Fri Sep 23 2011
By Tyler Hamilton Energy and Technology Columnist Special to the Star
We have barely reached the two-year anniversary of Ontario's feed-in-tariff program, the biggest energy initiative to flow out of the province's Green Energy Act, and certain folks have already declared it a failure. It hasn't delivered the jobs that were promised, some critics say, pointing to the small number of renewable-energy projects that have connected to the grid since the program was launched. The same critics complain that the program has jacked up electricity rates. So which is it? It can't be both. Too few jobs and projects are an indication that the program, which only pays for electricity generated, isn't having much of an impact at all on electricity prices. On the other hand, higher rates directly linked to the program would indicate projects are getting built at a healthy pace and jobs are being created, generating new tax revenues for the province. Part of the problem is that it's just too early to pass judgment. The feed-in-tariff program, for all its flaws, is part of a longer-term vision that will take some time to unfold. Over that time it will need rethinking and reworking, with an aim to better balancing consumer, environmental and economic interests."Be patient at the beginning" urged Harry Lehmann, director-general of Germany's federal environmental protection agency. Lehmann was in town last week to kick off a regular seminar series launched by York University's new Sustainable Energy Initiative, part of its faculty of environmental studies. (Disclosure: I am an adjunct professor with the faculty). Sharing the experiences of Germany, Lehmann said the kind of green energy program introduced in Ontario needs to operate for a few years before the economic benefits - the true vision of the initiative - become more visible. â€œThen it explodes,â€ said Lehmann, meaning in a good way. What Lehmann brought to the discussion was the benefit of hindsight. Twenty years ago renewable-energy represented less than 1 per cent of German power production. Today this production sits at 17 per cent, and the aim is to reach 35 per cent by 2020. As a result, according to Lehmann, Germany has 370,000 people working in the renewable-energy sector - - wind, biomass and solar --compared to virtually nothing in the early 1990s. The push for green energy coincided with a push for energy efficiency. The average home in Germany - a country not much unlike Ontario with respect to forests, seasons, temperature, sun and wind - consumes about a third of the energy of the average home here. This achievement didn't happen overnight. Efficiency initiatives began during the 1970s oil crisis and gained traction after the Chernobyl disaster in the mid-1980s. In the late 1970s German scientists raised a red flag on climate change, and this drew attention to the need to rely less on fossil fuels. By 1990, there was some talk of renewable energy, but Germany's monopoly utilities were not required to develop or accept such projects. They dabbled in wind and solar, but it wasn't until the late 1990s - with the introduction of Germany's feed-in-tariff program - that renewable-energy development, and the industries that support them, began to take off. One could say Germany is not Ontario. It has more immediate energy security issues that don't exist in Ontario. It has historically had higher electricity rates, so the transition to renewables didn't add excessive burden to power bills. Germany also had a first-mover advantage. It never had to compete against China during its early days. I asked Lehmann: Is Ontario coming to the game too late? "We are talking about a huge market that's evolving," he said later in an interview. "If we take seriously the data about peak oil, the hunger for energy in developing countries, climate change" each of these will lead us to a transformation of energy systems. There's enough room for Ontario to be in the game, to be ahead of that transformation. - Lehman did, however, point out some missteps Ontario has made. He was "œastonished" the feed-in-tariff rate for solar was set so high. That needs to come down. Unlike in Germany, he said, not enough emphasis has been put on smaller, community-based projects that all local citizens can invest in. The more citizens have a say in projects and can benefit financially from them, the less resistance there will be. By contrast, Ontario's FIT program has been dominated by domestic and foreign developers and big projects. As a result, community buy-in has often been replaced with local pockets of resistance. But this is a reason to improve the program, not scrap it, said Lehmann. And there lies the rub. We lament the lack of visionary leaders in this country. We want politicians to present us with a plan, a long-term strategy that will secure our prosperity and health in the future. Now Ontario has a plan -a vision - and the knee-jerk reaction of many is to be afraid of that future and resist change. Lehmann urges Ontarians to be patient and stay the course. Now, more than ever, the market needs certainty. The ball is now in the court of voters. Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.