No need to fear a 100% renewable energy Vancouver

Using Expo 86 as a historical marker of change is a cliché in our city. Surely, someone somewhere in Vancouver is talking right now about how Expo 86 transformed the city and it’s relationship with the world.

Three decades give ample time for physical, social, and economic transformation. Our city has changed in all those ways since ’86.

Vancouver’s False Creek prior to Expo ’86. (City of Vancouver Archives)

Which is why Jordan Bateman’s effort to frighten you about the state of natural gas in 2050 is so bizarre. You’re about to get ripped off, he claims, in a slow-motion, three decade-long heist.

Bateman wants you to fear Vancouver’s Renewable Energy Strategy, which sets a goal for Vancouver to be fully powered by renewable energy by 2050. Dozens of other cities, regions, and countries also have plans to stop using oil, natural gas, and coal. These places are rapidly installing renewable energy, increasing electrification, and reducing energy waste. Doing so is improving the health and resilience of their communities and making everywhere safer by slowing global warming.

Yes, there are upfront costs to install new renewable energy systems that replace polluting and aging fossil fuel plants. But the technology is mature and the prices stable — and dropping. Continued use of fossil fuels comes with its own extra costs. Long-term planning, like that in the Renewable Energy Strategy, means we can anticipate and take advantage of the energy revolution underway here and in every country.

Thirty years is a long time for technological change. In 1986, Polaroid and Kodak were fighting over the massive film camera market. And while Microsoft also IPO’d that year, the digital camera revolution was still two decades away. If Bateman was writing in 1986, he’d be calling on us to stock up on Kodak film and fear mongering about Microsoft’s ambitions for the “personal computer”.

Bateman styles himself as an anti-tax activist, but he doesn’t seem to have the public’s best interest in mind. He fails to mention the truly massive public price tag from continuing to use fossil fuels. Growing numbers of financial experts, including the former Governor of the Bank of Canada, are sounding the alarm about carbon risk in our economy and on our balance sheets. Extreme weather is battering our insurers and reserve funds as much as it is our homes and businesses. Hospitals, churches, and charities are voting to end their investment in fossil fuels because of the harm to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, especially children.

Climate change is the biggest roll of red tape the Canadian Taxpayers Federation has ever seen. When severe floodwaters, storm surges, heat waves, or polluted air afflict our city, governments must respond with emergency spending and services, like deploying military forces or installing public cooling stations.

Colorado National Guard assisting with flood response. (Wikimedia)

Public dollars pay for these measures and neglecting to plan responsibly increases the burden on taxpayers. But Jordan Bateman seems more concerned with FortisBC’s bottom line than with taxpayers. And it’s easy to understand why FortisBC, the monopoly that sells natural gas, wants to stop plans that reduce natural gas use.

The city is not planning to ban natural gas; it doesn’t even have the power to do so. But reducing and eventually eliminating natural gas use is inevitable. And, like the replacement of film cameras with handheld supercomputers, the change is going to happen over decades, not days.

The publicly-owned Neighbourhood Energy Utility in Southeast False Creek shows what this might look like.

In 1990, an NPA-led Council passed one of the world’s first municipal action plans for what we now call climate change. They proposed building a sustainable community on False Creek, a plan finished for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Today, a publicly-owned district energy system provides heat and hot water to nearby buildings from centralized boilers powered by natural gas and sewage waste heat.

1990 CoV Climate Action Report. (Simon Fraser University)

The city didn’t outlaw natural gas use in Olympic Village. Instead, natural gas is now only used during periods of extreme demand, like cold winter days. In 2018, the city plans to add more renewable heat recovery capacity to reduce natural gas use. By recovering the heat from sewage waste at a publicly-owned utility, we keep more money in our community and send less to FortisBC.

The utility is a successful experiment that deserves to be repeated and improved on. Economist Marc Lee calls it “a low-carbon urban system that hits a sweet spot of clean energy, local control, and stable prices at competitive rates.”

When the utility was first built, it took advantage of federal infrastructure grants offered by the Harper government. But it didn’t need them. As of 2014, the system is profitable with a regular dividend paid to the city. By 2027, analysts expect it to deliver a growing surplus each year.

There is no chaos here, no havoc. This utility shows what an incremental transition to clean energy looks like. Stable rates for cusomers, new local jobs and expertise in a cutting-edge industry, and a growing surplus to fund network expansion and utilities in other neighbourhoods.

Video about Southeast False Creek Energy Utility (City of Vancouver)

FortisBC and Bateman are pretending that there is no global effort underway to transition to full renewable energy. They pretend that natural gas, now priced at a historic low, won’t get more expensive and less available as we learn more about its risks and hidden costs. They pretend that a gradual reduction in fossil fuel use over three decades will cause chaos, havoc, and be a surprise to households and small businesses. They are as wrong as someone in 1986 insisting that Kodak would still be thriving in 2016.

Over the next three decades Vancouver should take advantage of the renewable energy transition to create new businesses and jobs and enjoy the benefits of locally-owned and operated clean power. In 2050, we’ll be glad we got started now.