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Time to clean up this act

A community in the midst of one of the largest natural-resource projects in the world is about to start an alternative energy project. Fort Chipewyan, a community of 1000, is preparing to install its first project in a demonstration of a real alternative-energy future.

“We’re telling people about the destructiveness of the tar-sands industry,” says Jesse Cardinal, coordinator with the Keepers of the Athabasca. “But what options are we providing them with?”

Solar energy for the community’s elder centre will soon be that option. Championed by Athabasca Chipewyan member Mike Mercredi and supported early on by the Keepers, the project has been in developmental stages since 2008. While the project still lacks a funder, the community is going ahead, with support from Alberta Ecotrust Foundation, to train six Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation members to install the solar panels. It’s just one step in a project that could become as expansive as providing solar energy for the entire community of 700 homes.

Funding is one of the main obstacles. Government programs to assist in start-up costs or capital funding are far between for alternative-energy projects.

“As soon as they come out they’re grabbed up and that’s it,” says Cardinal, who used to work as a small business consultant. “Any kind of small business, there’s all kinds of programs available and easily accessible, you can pretty much do it on the computer.”

Not so with a green energy project. “You have to have patience and an understanding that there’s not a lot of help from the government,” she adds.

According to a recent study by Analytica Advisors, the federal and provincial government may want to consider making greater investments into the clean-technology sector. The report, released in June, shows that clean technology is Canada’s fastest growing sector. Not only did it grow by nine percent in 2012, compared to oil and gas at 0.3 percent, but it has the potential to generate up to $32 billion by 2022 and employ 120 000 people.

It’s not the first study to make the claim. The Pembina Institute’s report on the clean technology industry in 2013 showed that the sector had a $50-billion potential. But clean tech advocates say the government is going to have to make the right investments and regulatory changes to assist in that growth.

“$50 billion is a big, hairy, audacious goal, now we have to figure out how to do it,” says Bryan Watson, managing director with CleanTech North. “But at least there’s a line drawn.”

CleanTech North represents a consortium of clean-technology groups and fosters investment in the sector. Watson’s group focuses primarily on technology development, as opposed to the project-based enterprises that seek to install solar panels or create wind farms. But the challenges are similar—a lack of up-front investment to kick-start development.

“There’s a shortcoming in terms of the supply of capital,” Watson says.

Sustainable Development Technology Canada is the primary method by which the federal government has financed the development of clean technologies since 2002. It has invested $600 million in the last 10 years. While Natural Resources Canada spent $40 million on an advertising campaign for the oil-and-gas sector in 2013 alone, the federal all-party committee on clean technology spent most of the last year advocating to ensure the continuance of the SDTC funding.

Outside of start-up funding, one program Watson says could improve the outcomes for clean-technology advocates is procurement.

“For the government to be the first customer, for a tech that has proven but hasn’t reached the significant market traction that it’s capable of, is a real stamp of approval for those technology companies, especially when they go out of the country,” Watson says.

According to the Analytica survey, the clean tech sector is primarily exporting its products and technology, with little support for the development of local markets.

“Right now a lot of energy, a lot of electricity, is north-south, not east-west,” says Ron Seftel, the senior vice-president of operations at Bullfrog Power. “Right now, Manitoba Hydro makes hundreds of millions of dollars selling to the US.”

Seftel says that to develop local markets and innovation requires large- and small-scale efforts on the part of government. Bullfrog Power, which connects homes and businesses with green energy, advocates a reasonable carbon price across Canada, as well as smaller incentives to individuals to engage with projects like solar.

“A carbon tax hits the larger companies, and these smaller incentives drive individuals to understand they’re part of the solution,” Seftel says.

Alberta has had a version of a carbon price since 2007. Organizations emitting more than 100 000 metric tonnes per year must reduce their emissions by 12 percent below the 2004 carbon intensity, or pay $15 per tonne over the limit into a fund. The fund is then directed toward the creation of green-energy technology.

Seftel says a reasonable carbon price incentivizes large emitters to encourage new technology development, while smaller programs, such as a solar-energy incentive program the Alberta government has put on hold, encourages a comprehensive way to encourage the development and use of renewable energy.

The multitude of approaches to encouraging the development of this potentially multi-billion dollar industry has created a discussion at the federal all-party committee on clean tech about a federal clean technology strategy.

Alberta had promised a strategy on clean energy would be implemented this year, a promise reiterated in this year’s throne speech, but as of yet, there is no sign of a province-wide strategy or framework.

Despite the lack of government attention, Watson says he sees many organizations ready to make the leap. “There’s a good foundation. There’s a lot of innovation in Canada, a lot of it is just at a boiling point and starting to get traction.”

After five years of advocacy and planning, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation project is ready to prove that no matter the climate, or the resources originally available, alternative energies are possible. Keepers of the Athabasca views it as just the first step in creating a different energy picture in northern Alberta.

“We’re going to help lead the way into where we as stewards of the land need to go for our energy future,” Cardinal says. “Because the province hasn’t been leading the way.”

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