How To Make Politicians, Business Leaders, And The Rest Of Us Dream Green Again

Ray Robinson, CEO of Saint John Energy. Image: Lise Hansen, Huddle.

Most New Brunswickers – politicians, business leaders, the general public (and me, I admit it) – are still preoccupied with oil and gas projects and public policies that favour those developments when we’re supposed to be turning our attention toward renewable energy sources and meeting climate change goals.

Premier Blaine Higgs has certainly made shale gas development and reviving Energy East his energy-related priorities judging by his public comments and actions in the months since he took office.

He’s filed a court challenge to the federal government climate change plans and pressured Ottawa to delay implementation of the new carbon tax to be collected beginning in April.

The public seems broadly supportive of Higgs’ efforts to revive Energy East and his fight against the carbon tax. There is opposition to shale gas development, but apart from committed environmentalists it seems mostly rooted in a “not-in-my-backyard” mentality because people aren’t voicing opposition to fracked gas being imported from other places to fuel homes, businesses and public buildings in the province.

Then there is Irving Oil, the province’s largest and most influential private-sector energy company. The enthusiasm around the company’s idea to power a second refinery with tidal power seems like such a long time ago now. That bold initiative died not long after the refinery project itself was shelved nearly a decade ago.

The most recent mega-project involving Irving Oil – the proposed Energy East pipeline – would have made the province even more economically reliant on the continued growth of the fossil fuel industry. Politicians and business leaders were consumed by the project for years, and are again to a lesser extent now that Higgs has put it back on the agenda.

In this environment, it’s difficult to get politicians, business leaders and ordinary citizens engaged in sustained public discussions around the exploration of renewable energy initiatives.

There are renewable energy companies like NexGen and Stash Energy that are leaders in their fields, but because they’re relatively small they don’t command public attention on a regular basis.

NB Power is a natural leader on renewables and climate change issues with its emphasis on energy efficiency programs, a network of charging stations for electric cars and efforts to introduce smart meters to the electrical grid system.

The public utility also has wind farms supplying the electricity grid and recently partnered with Siemens and Nova Scotia Power to research and test in real-time how the grid of the future can optimize the integration of renewables.

But discussions about those initiatives are unfortunately often overshadowed by the rather heated and persistent debates about the public utility’s massive debt and rising electricity rates for consumers.

Saint John Energy deserves a place in this conversation about renewables and doesn’t have a massive debt and rising rates to sideline conversation about its efforts to develop green energy programs and policies, and introduce renewables into the grid.

A few weeks ago, the city-owned utility announced that it was seeking bids from developers to build, own and operate a wind farm in the Spruce Lake Industrial Park on the city’s west side.

The initial plan calls for a $30-million investment to construct five to 10 turbines that will generate between 20 to 40 megawatts of energy. More than 40 companies have already inquired about submitting a bid for the project that could ultimately supply as much as 20 per cent of the power to the grid that feeds homes and businesses in the city.

In a recent conversation Ray Robinson, CEO of Saint John Energy, said the project makes economic and environmental sense.

“Wind is the lowest-cost new energy source in Canada,” said Robinson. “We’re increasing renewables in the province, we’re reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the province, and we’re driving millions of savings to the bottom line.”

It’s very early days for this project and Robinson says they’ll only proceed once they’ve done more detailed costing projections to make sure it makes economic sense for the ratepayer and the utility.

But it’s a great example of how to advance the conversation so it captures the attention of community leaders and the general public. They need to be convinced that green projects like this make economic sense and can be scaled to have a larger impact provincewide.

Until then, political and community leaders will keep pushing for projects like Energy East and shale gas development. Higgs spent 30 years with Irving Oil and is a political pragmatist. He still sees a path for these mega projects that he believes will have significant impacts on the province’s economy and believes it’s worth pressing ahead for the government revenue and economic growth they represent.

And who knows, maybe we can get Higgs and Irving Oil dreaming green again. The idea of powering a refinery with tidal power seemed fanciful at the time, and even more so perhaps after a decade when even ambitious yet conventional projects like Energy East got shelved.

But Exxon is doing something like this in Texas. Last fall, the oil giant announced it would use cost-competitive renewable energy to produce oil in the Permian Basin, the fastest growing U.S. oil field. Exxon signed an agreement to buy 500 megawatts of wind and solar power, the largest ever renewable power contract signed by an oil company.

If it can happen in Texas, maybe something like it can happen here too.

Mark Leger is the editor Huddle.

Huddle publishes commentaries from groups and individuals on important business issues facing the Maritimes. These commentaries do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Huddle. To submit a commentary for consideration, contact editor Mark Leger: [email protected]