“We have solutions, but they have not been deployed because the system has not figured out how to make money off of them” – Melissa Quesenelle, Indigenous Sustainable Structures Collaborative.
December 14, 2022
Guest post by Sarah-Anne Thompson
Profit considerations shape the landscape of global energy systems. Since our shift from a wood-burning to a coal-burning society, wealth generation has been embedded in energy systems through the privatization and commodification of natural energy resources. Conversations on the future of Canada’s energy sector often still focus on untapped oil reserves, jobs based on fossil fuel extraction, and maintaining economic stability within the oil sector.
Though profit continues to dictate many conversations regarding energy, a just energy transition stresses the need to balance social, environmental, and economic factors in pursuing renewable, sustainable, and democratic transitions.
Earlier this year, the Women & Inclusivity in Sustainable Energy Research (WISER) network, in partnership with Smart Prosperity Institute (SPI), and Women in Renewable Energy (WiRE) Canada, brought together ten expert panellists to share their insights on transitioning energy systems. This event, “Transitioning energy systems: Who Leads? Who Benefits?” was first of three SSHRC-funded symposia offered online and open to all on the theme of ‘Strengthening Gender Diverse Research Capacity for an Inclusive Green Recovery in Canada.’ Interestingly enough, during this event, the word ‘profit’ was not mentioned.
Why? The discussion revealed that when we don’t talk solely about profit, we create space for equity-embedded solutions, confrontations of deeply-rooted inequalities, and methods for bringing communities, industry, and government along in the just transition.
This is not to say that economic considerations do not play an important role in just transitions. For instance, job creation, skills training, and re-building of local economies are pillars of the Green New Deal. The panellists in this symposium, however, emphasized that economic considerations must be placed equally alongside principles of social equity and healthy environmental futures.
In three panel discussions, researchers and practitioners moved between technical deployment of renewables, energy democracy, energy sovereignty, and more. Four key messages from the Symposia reveal all that can happen when we talk about more than profit:
1. When we move beyond only considering profit, we can better share the benefits of renewable energy deployment. This thread carried through all three panel discussions. For instance, Sarah E. Sharma, Assistant Professor at the University of Victoria, shared her research highlighting the tendency of fossil fuel companies to privatize the benefits of oil production and download risks to local populations, namely workers. All panellists spoke of the necessity to envision inclusive energy futures where communities are in control of and benefitting from their renewable energy systems. Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, noted that economic diversification is vital for the just transition of communities and regions that are dependent on fossil fuel extraction. This can include advancing new sectors that keep sustained economic development within the community, equipping workers with new skills needed in the renewable energy sector, and involving communities in financial decision-making processes.
2. When we talk about levelling the playing field between fossil fuel extraction and renewable energies, we prioritize establishing political and economic pathways to energy system transformation. Renewable energy portfolios are cost-competitive. However, as highlighted by Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, Christina Hoicka (Associate Professor at the University of Victoria), and Sarah E. Sharma, many legal and economic systems still favour fossil fuel extraction. Sharma noted that this upper hand is intensified by the lock-in nature of fossil fuel investments, where even if the benefits are not meeting expectations, the investments are difficult to withdraw.
To remedy these barriers, Gamper-Rabindran emphasized the need to vote for political leaders that will create legal and economic pathways to rapid renewable energy deployment. Hoicka introduced the Energy Technology Innovation System (actors, networks, institutions, and socio-technical systems relating to energy) to point out the lack of public and private funding for renewables compared to fossil fuels. Increased renewable energy funding in research and infrastructure is key to a timely, inclusive transition.
3. When we talk about how the transition from fossil fuels will shape our communities, we can better understand how to encourage deep civil engagement in energy decision-making processes. Hoicka discussed the importance of renewable energy clusters in a decarbonized system. Renewable energy clusters are comprised of complementary energy sources that are flexible, interconnected, and host different actors and bi-directionality of energy flows.
Rural regions will play an essential role in developing these clusters to meet the demands of an electrified urban grid, and in this, new rural-urban partnerships will develop. Hoicka further noted that communities and local authorities will be called to action in the democratization of the energy landscape, partnered with a growing presence of energy citizens who actively participate in the energy transition. To further facilitate this needed deep civil engagement, Hoicka referenced the need for a policy mix that prioritizes inclusivity. Led by Anna Berka, (Researcher at Massey University), this work establishes pathways for inclusive civil energy governance.
4. When we better understand what Indigenous Energy Sovereignty means, we can better deliver just energy transitions. The energy transition, if done right, can also be a form of Reconciliation by enhancing the autonomy of Indigenous communities. In a ‘fire-side-style’ conversation, Judith Sayers, the President of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, Melissa Quesnelle of Indigenous Sustainable Structures Collaborative, and Rebecca Sinclair of Indigenous Climate Action, spoke of the importance of Indigenous nations having both consent and control over energy projects on their territory.
To this point, Sayers shared her insights from her time as Chief of Hupucasath First Nation, when the community built a run-of-river hydro project. Hupucasath First Nation owns 72.5 percent of the project, which gives the Nation decision-making power over how their territory, land, and waters are managed in relation to this energy production. First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities are both drivers and stakeholders in the just transition. Panellists confirmed that Indigenous energy autonomy creates stronger communities and grids, and that a systems-level transformation is needed to allow Indigenous utilities to compete within the current Canadian energy landscape.
Jennie Stephens, Professor at Northeastern University, noted that when we have homogenous representation in the energy sector, we limit what’s possible. This symposia and her book, “Diversifying Power: Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership in Climate and Energy”, highlight diversity as more than creating opportunities for people with diverse backgrounds. Rather, it’s about bringing different perspectives and priorities to the table to understand what’s needed, what’s possible, and how to get there.
The “Transitioning energy systems: Who Leads? Who Benefits?” symposia underlined that energy systems are at the heart of our societies. What would it look like for those systems to place social inclusiveness, environmental stewardship, and community needs on equal footing with the present-day priority of mass profit? The WISER network, SPI, and WiRE Canada are interested in these conversations and will continue to amplify the diverse voices leading them.
Sarah-Anne Thompson is a graduate researcher in the department of Rural Planning and Development at the University of Guelph.