It is time for a more pragmatic approach to energy transition. But that will require all politicians to get a grip

Bill WhitelawThere are polar vortexes.

And then there are polarizing vortexes.

Alberta was just sucked violently into the latter.

The province may be out of the physical deep freeze – and our electricity grid breathing a sigh of relief – but we’re still shivering violently from the experience.

Because that’s what polarizing vortexes do: they push people to the edges and extremes. And there are folks who love nothing more than to stir a good vortex of discontent. They keep it alive by stoking pseudo-apocalyptic tensions and creating visions of faux dystopias. Fear is their stock in trade, and ignorance their weaponry.

energy transition
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The recent deep freeze brought out the best of many Albertans; unfortunately, it also brought out the worst in some. And that doesn’t bode well for a province preparing for the real rigours of energy transition and transformation.

Energy dynamics in Alberta are so polarized and pushed to the extremes that smart money wouldn’t put odds on the province’s hope for success in anything that resembles constructive transition success.

Looming large among post-freeze polarization outputs: a stunning volume of vitriol, much of it ill-informed and completely disconnected from energy science and realities. That phenomenon can be linked directly to the state of energy politics in Canada, wherein ideological extremes at the right and left push ordinary Canadians away from the practical matters of energy civics and energy civility.

Ideological isolationism, bluntly speaking, has paralyzed us.

Post four electricity grid alerts and one emergency warning came the predictable navel-gazing, analysis, and punditry. What also came is something alarming and an increasing hallmark of energy discourse in this province and country: a perplexing amalgam of ad hominem attacks, sophomoric glee, and, frankly, an amazing display of energy illiteracy.

But this time, the angst turned largely inward, like a bad case of self-inoculated flesh-eating disease and Albertans fed on themselves.

Much legitimate analysis and commentary emerged about the grid system itself and the economic, market and political contexts in which it operates. These threads are well worth pursuing as a learning moment as they fit into larger conversations about electrification and the future. So, there is sanity in the system.

But there’s also a disturbing “insanity” that threatens a precarious equilibrium as we edge into increasingly turbulent energy times.

What deserves more introspection is our capacity for “vile and bile” – much of it based on ideology and not on how things really work. This is the preserve of energy misanthropes whose singular mission is to seemingly knock down any form of dialogue that doesn’t swear allegiance to the hydrocarbon molecule.

Electricity is complicated. Very, very complicated. The system that powers Alberta homes and businesses is extraordinarily complex. And while a lot of folks think they know how “the system” works, very few really know how the nuts and bolts actually tighten to get energy to us. But that didn’t stop scads of self-identifying experts from weighing in with opinions big on bluster, hyperbole, and small on fact and merit.

If they’ve made it this far into this piece, the pro-hydrocarbon trolls are drooling. So, here’s a little pre-troll prevention. I’m proud to work in Canadian oil and gas. Very proud. But I am, as are many, many others, a little tired of explaining away and justifying idiosyncratic behaviour from our own fringe.

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s 2035 net-zero grid aspirations are a fantasy. But equally nonsensical are Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s 2050 objectives. The same goes for Saskatchewan leader Scott Moe’s goals.

The reality is we will be combusting natural gas for power production for a long time to come. We’re decades and decades away from a grid without natural gas as we strive to push emissions from the system.

The sooner we face the realities of a Not-Zero framework and what we can really achieve, the better.

But if the rest of Canada and the world looked to Alberta for energy leadership during the deep freeze, they might be legitimately dismayed by how some Albertans took to social media and shot off their mouths in the direction of their feet.

Here’s one particularly laughable moment from the cold spell.

Mid-freeze, I suggested that people’s lack of awareness about energy systems and a sense of entitlement to energy – a common issue among Canadians – played a significant role in the near-failure. This was particularly evident as Albertans had sufficient chances to adjust their energy consumption habits beforehand, potentially reducing the necessity for emergency alerts. I argued that it’s essential we acknowledge our energy entitlement and recognize our limited knowledge if we are to bring about effective changes in our energy systems.

I was more than a little bemused when some of the sector’s more strident (and dogmatic) voices accused me of victim blaming. Albertans as victims of an eroding and clunky grid? Albertans are the grid, people. They’ve voted in the parties of both political stripes that made our grid what it is today. Both the UCP and NDP had a hand in shaping the current grid and its flaws without any outside help from the nation’s capital.

What was amazing about all this noise is how much emanated from folks who don’t understand the fundamentals. They made the silliest declarations that merely underscored their ignorance. It was startling to see how they sacrificed anything that resembled scientific integrity at the altar of ideological convenience – fitting the “facts” to the prevailing narrative.

As we gaze into the future, as a province and country, we have two choices. We can stare into an abyss of despair or lift our eyes to the radical middle and its potential to move the needle. That means sending current political leadership strong and clear messaging on behaviours.

To all politicians, federally and provincially, on the left and on the right, get a grip. Stop the backbiting and the backsliding. Get on the high road. Start living and displaying the productive and collaborative behaviours you claim are occurring behind closed doors.

Bring back energy civility. Our future depends on it.

Bill Whitelaw is a director and advisor to many industry boards, including the Canadian Society for Evolving Energy, which he chairs. He speaks and comments frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.

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