40 Years Ago, Renewable Energy Became the Road Not Taken
Just over 40 years ago this week, I stumbled across a sheet of paper that reshaped my life and career, and should have pointed toward a future for all of us without the risk of catastrophic climate change.
On October 31, 1977, Vol. 1, No. 1 of Canadian Renewable Energy News hit the stands. The sheet of paper was the recruitment poster for a fledgling publication in search of freelance reporters.
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The newspaper’s name screamed out in pretentious, Old English type that I later learned was a conscious choice, aimed at conveying the seriousness of the publication and the technologies it would report on.
“Renewable energy? Yeah, right,” I remember thinking. “Well, maybe their cheques will clear.”
The resulting follow-up call was the start of a 3½-year assignment as reporter, Parliamentary correspondent, then assistant editor that carried me through roughly half of the paper’s seven-year lifespan. It was also an honour of a lifetime, an opportunity to learn about the technologies, processes, and mindsets that point toward a post-carbon future.
The First Heyday of Renewables
Over nearly a decade, CREN grew into a leading international trade journal covering a cluster of industries that were small, fiercely innovative and determined, but in need of investment, policy encouragement, and ready markets.
In an era when renewable energy and energy conservation were beginning to flourish, but received scant public or mass media attention and precious little political support, CREN brought together the latest news and innovations from across Canada and, soon enough, around the world.
At a time when solar, wind, bioenergy, hydro, and energy conservation were all seen as small-time energy options that would never shape national policy or strategy, CREN reported on the early modelling that showed how a “soft energy path” could completely replace all non-renewable options by 2025—and why they should.
In other words—with the head start we had 40 years ago, the job should have been all but done by now.
Those early stories were the leading edge of a broadly-based community of designers and builders, technology developers and business operators, many of them driven by a purpose far bigger than the installations they worked on.
They imagined energy systems that were efficient, frugal, and safe. Projects that could actually come in on time and on budget (nuclear industry, take note). Home energy systems that freed low-income households from a choice between fuel and food.
And they weren’t just imagining that future. They were building it with their bare hands, one brick at a time.
“I think we pretty much nailed most of the big sectors that 40 years later are still the pillars of green energy: wind, solar, hydro-kinetic, various methods of extracting bioenergy, efficiency and storage,” recalls my CREN colleague Chris Wood, now co-curator of The Energy Mix.
Since then, “better materials have made possible bigger turbines, more efficient PV cells, and batteries with more capacity and recharge cycles. IT and the Internet have contributed to materials development, and to grid integration for variable energy resources.”
CREN’s former international editor Jeff Passmore, now an industry analyst with close connections to Shell Petroleum, points to the 9.5 billion litres of ethanol going into the company’s fuel blends each year.
But in those early days, the cornerstones of a mainstream renewable energy sector were already evident.
Institutional Murder, Plain and Simple
In October, 1980, I was part of CREN’s reporting team at the Fifth National Passive Solar Conference in Amherst, MA. The event was a tableau of an industry on the rise.
Earth Day founder Denis Hayes, the youngest-ever director of a U.S. national laboratory, headed the Solar Energy Research Institute.
A national homebuilders’ network had formed to move low-energy construction and retrofit from the margins to the mainstream.
A new national network, Women in Solar Energy (WISE), summed up the politics and technology of the moment in four words: Active Women, Passive Solar.
The Franklin County Energy Project was mounting a home insulation campaign to keep dollars in the community, not much concerned with whether the “imported” oil came from Saudi Arabia or Texas.
We knew these industries and technologies could deliver. And we knew we were the walking dead. To get to sessions every morning, we had to walk past flags at half-mast for 66 hostages in the U.S. embassy in Tehran. A national election was just a couple of weeks away, and Ronald Reagan was poised to tear down all we had built.
Solar Lobby Executive Director Richard Munson, now Midwest clean energy director at the U.S. Environmental Defense Fund, wasn’t worried: if Reagan really believed in a “level playing field” for all forms of energy, he said, renewables and efficiency were ready to compete and win.
A CREN editorial cartoon hangs over my desk to this day, and sums up what happened next. It shows Hayes as a rainsuited mariner, confronting a destructive tornado levelling everything in its path. Hayes had assured supporters that renewables could weather the storm. Within weeks, he’d been dismissed.
Reagan’s first budget mapped out a 93% cut in renewable energy and energy conservation spending. The big money on Reagan’s level playing field was set aside for synthetic fuel subsidies.
It was institutional murder, plain and simple.
The Plain Brown Envelope
Like any other news outlet in a world before PDFs, CREN received its share of news leaks in hard copy, encased in (literal or metaphorical) plain brown envelopes. One of them foretold the policy choices that set Alberta and Canada up to be bruised by a global oil price crash that is now entering its fourth year.
It was the early 1980s, just before federal and provincial ministers signed off on one of the country’s first heavy oil developments. The origins of the anonymous analysis were clear—it was printed on the recycled map paper used for in-house drafts at the then Department of Energy, Mines and Resources.
The memo looked at the subsidies governments would have to shell out to get industry onboard for the project, and calculated the costs and benefits of an equivalent investment in a national home insulation program. Its conclusions were stunning: The insulation plan would save more energy than the heavy oil upgrader would produce, creating more jobs that were more evenly distributed across the country.
The upgrader went ahead anyway, and to this day, Canada and especially Alberta are overly dependent on the boom-and-bust industry that received that initial infusion of government largesse. The country is still one of the world’s biggest per capita energy users, on track to fall short of a carbon reduction target that is itself inadequate to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
The Road Not Taken
In the years after the Reagan cutbacks, renewable energy funding largely dried up. Energy efficiency efforts focused on specific industries, or on encouraging consumers to “do their bit” while the fossil industries, in particular, drove up energy use and carbon emissions. Gone was any notion of setting long-term, economy-wide goals and initiating structural changes to achieve them.
Meanwhile, selective subsidies and a failure to consider the massive “externalities” of fossil fuel development created a false price disparity between the energy technologies that were causing a cluster of tough problems, and the cleaner, greener options that could solve or prevent them.
So here we are. The atmosphere warms while the oceans acidify. Communities from Fort McMurray to Puerto Rico, South Asia to the Horn of Africa face climate-induced crisis.
And yet—solar and wind electricity are now cheaper than coal, solar outpaced all other new electricity installations in 2016, international investors are clamouring for climate accountability and transparency, and even some of the world’s biggest fossils are embracing renewable fuels and electricity. On the balance of probabilities, the transition still has just enough time to outrun climate disaster on a global scale.
So on October 31, I took a few minutes to think back to a small but mighty newspaper with a pretentious, Old English logo that was the gateway to a future that should already be here. Then, with the next United Nations climate conference less than a week away, it was time to get right back at it.