Contributing to Canada’s Energy Literacy: Educating a Potential Energy Superpower

By Alexandra Mallett, James Meadowcroft, Stephan Schott and Glen Toner

Canada is not yet an energy superpower. Becoming one will require more than just rapidly expanding the oil sands.

An energy superpower will require a network of sophisticated, reliable and sustainable energy production systems, efficient end-users and robust policy frameworks, none of which we currently have. Many voices are now calling for a national energy strategy to enhance policy integration among Canada’s many jurisdictions and develop a long term vision for the country’s energy future.

As recent controversies over electricity pricing and energy infrastructure in Ontario suggest, Canadians have taken our energy riches for granted and appear unwilling to pay the real cost of producing and delivering energy. Instead, they prefer to subsidize both production and consumption through their taxes. This reluctance to tackle the true costs of energy and electricity generation, including carbon pricing, and to provide a more certain investment environment for alternative energy sources, reflects a lack of energy literacy and insufficient dialogue on vital issues that will shape the Canadian economy in the upcoming decades.

A range of energy policy and technology challenges will test our intelligence. Many point towards the increasing electrification of society, but this raises questions about the robustness of provincial electrical systems. Environmental challenges related to water use, the health of aquifers, carbon emissions, air quality, accidents in fragile ecosystems and nuclear waste are directly linked to the way in which we currently – and plan to – produce and use energy, including oil sands, shale gas development, offshore and Arctic drilling and nuclear energy.

In order to tackle such issues, we require policy and technology innovations that are not just confined to provincial jurisdictions. This comes at a time when commentators have labelled Canada a “policy runt” with an utter lack of national vision or co-ordination of regulations and incentives. Consumers have high expectations about the stability of their power and fuel supplies but little comprehension of the many costs and challenges involved in providing a reliable and efficient energy system. This is, in large part, why so many think-tanks, business organizations and NGOs are calling for a proactive national dialogue on energy.

One outcome of such a dialogue should be the development of a national energy strategy that sees provinces strengthen the co-ordination of their energy regimes, along with innovations that result in robust, broadly-based electricity production systems built around smart grids. Other elements would be federal, provincial and municipal government policy co-ordination to develop renewable energy technologies, advance greenhouse gas emission reduction technologies, encourage energy savings and modernize our industrial and transportation systems. Urban design and transportation, innovations in work patterns and the upgrading of residential, commercial and office buildings will require creative policy responses involving regulations and fiscal tools as well as new technologies.

What can the universities do to contribute to the energy literacy of Canadian citizens and decision-makers?

Universities are effective at researching challenging questions and at educating future generations of society’s leaders. Advanced research on both energy production and end-use technologies, and on policy regimes that deploy the full range of economic, regulatory and exhortation instruments are critically important to elevating our national performance. In order to succeed in this advanced research, we require more interdisciplinary approaches which pursue technologically-informed policy relevant research on energy questions.

At Carleton University, we are seeking to overcome the disciplinary silos which traditionally hamstring research and teaching in this area.

As a consequence, we established the Carleton Sustainable Energy Research Centre (CSERC) in 2009 as part of a major initiative by Carleton to develop research and teaching programs in the area of sustainable energy. In 2010, we launched an interdisciplinary master’s program in Sustainable Energy that will integrate both engineering and public policy graduate students in a joint program. Further integration with other disciplines is in progress.

This interdisciplinary approach to engineering, policy and economic research will enhance the energy literacy of future generations of public policy and corporate leaders.

Universities can also provide a “neutral space” to facilitate dialogue among the various sectors of Canadian society as we debate the intergenerational response involved in making the fundamental transition to a lower carbon society. Universities, including Carleton, can provide sophisticated professional training opportunities to the current generation of governmental and corporate policy advisers and decision-makers.

These types of initiatives can help address the profound societal need to enhance our capacity to become more energy literate and to facilitate the transition to a less carbon intensive and more innovative and prosperous economy. We hope to advance this dialogue with our new initiatives and to engage Canadians as we collectively endeavour to develop a sustainable energy future for our country.

Alexandra Mallett, James Meadowcroft, Stephan Schott and Glen Toner are faculty members in the Graduate School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University.

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