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Every two weeks we’ll speak with game-changing experts to bring you the latest on the fast-changing energy landscape, innovative technologies, eco-conscious efforts, and more. Join Hydro Ottawa’s Trevor Freeman as he demystifies and dives deep into some of the most prominent topics in the energy industry.

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May 27, 2024

In this first of a two-part series, we unpack the vital role of policy in driving the energy transition with Nicholas Rivers, Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and the Institute of the Environment at the University of Ottawa. Join us as we explore the layers of policy implementation, the interplay of social and technological solutions, and the challenge of designing policies that balance data with public opinion and emotion.

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Transcript:

Energy Policy Deep Dive with Nicholas Rivers (Part 1)

 

Fri, May 24, 2024 11:55AM • 52:17

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

emissions, policy, carbon, price, work, canada, carbon pricing, technology, government, cost, climate change, electricity, big, emitters, action, ontario, regulations, podcast, climate, energy

SPEAKERS

Nicholas Rivers, Trevor Freeman

 

Trevor Freeman  00:07

Welcome to think energy, a podcast that dives into the fast changing world of energy through conversations with industry leaders, innovators, and people on the frontlines of the energy transition. Join me Trevor Freeman, as I explore the traditional, unconventional and up and coming facets of the energy industry. If you have any thoughts, feedback or ideas for topics we should cover, please reach out to us at think energy at hydro ottawa.com. Hi, everyone. Welcome back. We've talked a lot on the podcast about how climate change is a big complex problem. And the entity transition that is already underway is also a big complex undertaking. These things require complex solutions to address them, it's not a single thing that's going to solve this for us. You know, we often think about solutions as being some kind of technology, either an existing technology or something that we're going to innovate on or invent in the future. And we talk about a lot of those on the podcasts, everything from heat pumps, to renewable generation to grid modernization. But technology doesn't just exist and grow in a bubble. And we can't just rely on technological solutions on their own to solve climate change or to help continue the energy transition. There is also a need for other approaches, for example, Social approaches, you know, we need to educate people on what climate change is and how it works and what we need to do to change it. We need to motivate people, we need to rile up people to create that desire for change, and create the political and social will to go behind that. What are the key drivers to help advance all of these different moving parts, if you will, is policy our policy solutions, you can really think of policy as the foundation or the bedrock upon which all these other things are built. And when we talk about policy, we're talking about all different levels. So from the federal government, to provincial governments, who are municipal governments, and you know, this is the Canadian context, we're in Canada speaking about this. So if you're listening from a different country, you know, slot in your various levels of government there. Our policy solutions are what push or pull certain actions. And I'm sure we're all familiar with the sort of carrot and stick analogy. Carrots being those things dangled in front of us to help us move towards some more desirable action or desirable state sticks being you know, the sort of prod or push that are going to, you know, help push us into something or away from something else. These policy solutions are really designed to make a desirable action easier and more likely, and to make an undesirable action harder and less likely. So in the context of climate change, for example, the desirable action might be the adoption of cleaner technologies, like EVs or renewable generation, or speeding up the development and adoption of new technologies, where the undesirable action might be just the status quo like doing things, the way we've always done them, we know we need to change that's an important piece, or the undesirable action might be just the continued use of fossil fuels, we need to move away from that that's the undesirable action that's not going to help us solve climate change. And so we're going to talk about policy today. And I'll talk about our guests in a minute. But I think it's important to also remember this next piece, and that is that policy is tough. It is tough to know what will work and what won't work. It's tough to know what the thing is, that's going to really create the desired action you want, that people are going to get behind. policy can be uncomfortable, as I've said, policy prioritizes certain actions over others. And we've talked about this before Canadians and more broadly, people, we are not homogenous in the way that we think or care about things we don't always care equally about the same things. We all have different pressures and drivers in our lives. We all have different contexts in our lives, and so naturally, our priorities aren't always going to line up. And when you have a policy that is designed to prioritize certain actions over others, some portion of the population is going to disagree that that's the right priority. And in practical terms, it's usually a bunch of different portions of the population that agree or disagree in varying amounts. Policy is often designed and applied in what you might call a scientific way. So certain policy tools have expected outcomes that can be measured. There are, you know, metrics that go behind these things. But policy is often received by the general public in a very decidedly non-scientific way. In fact, we typically receive policy in a more emotional way, how we feel about some new policy really is what drives our opinion and our action around that policy. And that's more so than maybe the data will drive our opinion in our actions. In fact, the way that we look at that data is often influenced by sort of our emotion around how we feel about something. And I'm not saying that's wrong. That's kind of just human nature. And we all do it no matter what your I guess political leaning is where you fall in the spectrum. We all do this with, with policy, with the direction that our government is taking. But knowing that is helpful, and it lets us check in with ourselves against that, you know, are we really looking at things just based on the merits based on the data, or what is the emotion that we're feeling about certain things, I think that's important. So with that preamble, my guest today is here to help us pull apart the suite of policy tools that are already playing a role in helping us decarbonize and tackle climate change and some of the things that might be upcoming, or other options that are out there. And I'm gonna say off the bat that there's a lot to talk about here. This is quite a long conversation. So we're actually going to split this into two pieces. We'll have part one and part two, and kind of break it up into two different episodes so that they're a little bit easier to get through. But I'll say in advance, I appreciate you sticking through. I think this is an important topic of conversation and, and my guest today knows a lot about it. So I'm happy to have Nicholas Rivers on the podcast today. Nicholas Rivers is a Professor of Public and International Affairs from the University of Ottawa. His research focuses on the economic evaluation of environmental policies. He is a member of the Canadian climate Institute and served as a co editor of the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, and was previously a Canada Research Chair in climate and energy policy. Nick regularly provides advice on energy and climate policies to federal and provincial governments, as well as nongovernmental organizations. So Nicholas, welcome to the show.

 

Nicholas Rivers  07:32

Thanks for having me on, Trevor.

 

Trevor Freeman  07:34

So let's start with a little bit of background, can you give us a sense of how you got to where you are today, and really specifically how you came to be passionate about environmental policy?

 

Nicholas Rivers  07:44

Okay, well, this is something where, you know, maybe it's easy to look back and paint a linear trajectory. But certainly, this is not, this was not the aim. From a young age, I didn't have career goals, I would say leaving high school had no idea. I had been pretty good at math and, you know, a tinkerer. I liked playing with capsula, which was this cool, mechanical toy, and Lego, and that kind of thing. And so I did engineering, without really an end goal in mind. I did mechanical engineering. And at that time, you know, when I was in my late teens, early 20s, I started reading books about kind of nascent books about climate change books about energy, I had friends that were really active in the kind of energy and environmental movements, and started to realize that that's maybe where I wanted to focus, my energy, my own energy. And so in my mechanical engineering degree, I wanted to start working on renewable energy, which was really at the beginning at the time, this was the late 1990s. So at the time, there was one wind turbine in Ontario. I went to visit it during my mechanical engineering degree, the Pickering one, right. It was up. No, it was up on the Europe like you're on the Peninsula, Brisbane and so Okay, gotcha, right by the British nuclear station. It was a test one, it wasn't a big commercial wind facility. So I was just like, digging around trying to find interesting stuff. And wind turbines look really interesting because they were big, and they were in moved and they you could see something they were doing. I didn't end up working in wind facilities. I ended up getting some jobs and hydrogen worked with Ballard and Hydrogenics as a co-op engineer. So that was my kind of foot in the in the renewable world. And I have to say, I didn't really like it all that much. I was doing, you know, I was in the field that I kind of wanted to be in the engineering field. And it's working on renewables, but the jobs I was doing didn't appeal to me. So they were really kind of small bits of the renewable energy picture and I was reading the books at the time by Amory Levin's and if you come across him or Paul Hodgkin and they were talking about big system transformations. And that's what I wanted to get into. And here I was figuring out the right radius to bend a pipe that transferred humidity from one stream to another. And it just wasn't jiving with the big picture that I was interested in. And so I ended up going back to university after my undergraduate degree, to study resource and environmental management with Mark Jackered, at Simon Fraser University. And Mark is one of the people that's been really central in thinking about energy policy and environmental policy in Canada over the last, I guess, like four decades now. And I think exposure to the way he was thinking and the way I was taught to think in that program really got me interested in and working on energy and environmental policy on a kind of as a career, and expose me to the possibility that you could work on this right, as a high school student leaving high school, you don't think that there's jobs working on energy policy, so it wasn't something I had in mind from for a long time. I'll also say, I grew up in a family that I don't know if they were environmentalist, but certainly fought a lot about the environment, you know, bird watching, and hiking, and that kind of thing. I was outside a lot when I was young, and I still like to be outside all the time. So I think there's, I've always had that kind of affinity for the environment. But this was a way that I could kind of blend some of my math skills or some of my interests and tinkering with, with some of those kinds of environmental affinity.

 

Trevor Freeman  11:31

Yeah, I mean, this is definitely not an episode where I need to give my backstory, but there's so much of what you said that, that I relate to from drawing a connection between playing with Lego as a kid and ending up in engineering school, that's totally my pathway as well, and being you know, good at math, getting into engineering school, and then realizing, hey, there might be something else out here through a project. And so I did my fourth year design project, just on a whim on a green roof for one of our university buildings 

 

Nicholas Rivers  11:59

Ah cool.

 

Trevor Freeman  12:00

I would say that's kind of a point where it pushed me into this more sustainability focused career. So great to hear that. Thanks for sharing that. And certainly, I can appreciate the lack of linearity and a lot of careers in this space, and really the 

 

Nicholas Rivers  12:14

Exactly, yeah 

 

Trevor Freeman  12:15

everything. So. Okay, so the topic here, we're talking about today's policy. So I want to have you help us understand what is the history of decarbonisation policy in Canada? You know, we're at a point today, and we'll talk about maybe where we need to go moving forward. But what has come before this? When did we start seeing policies focused on reducing carbon in Canada, give us a bit of a crash course on our history so far.

 

Nicholas Rivers  12:45

Sure, I'll do my best. It's not that new. Right. We've known about this for a long time. In fact, I teach a course on climate. And, you know, in digging around for that course, we have studied climate change for over a century. The first, I think, relatively modern looking predictions about climate change came in the 1800s, the late 1800s. And so we have had a pretty good sense of where we're going for a long time. The first real government assessment of the severity of climate change came in the 1960s. This was a US government and national assessment, National Science Assessment. And it pretty much got the contours of the problem right, in the sense that we haven't, haven't changed our understanding of the science of climate change all that dramatically since the 1960s. The projections from that time still hold out today. In Canada, we didn't act quickly after the 1960s reports in the US, although we certainly followed them. The first thing Canada did, I would say, was hold a big international conference on climate change in the late 1980s, in Toronto. And this is a period, you know, when we were holding a number of these big international conferences on sustainable development, for example, or on climate for the first time, and Canada did its part in Toronto in '88 by holding this conference called the World Conference On The Changing Atmosphere. And at that conference, it was recognized that we can't keep going the way we are on climate. It's not sustainable, we're going to end up with more of a warmer world than we want. And we promised at the time, to reduce emissions by 20%. From those levels in the 80s. By the beginning of the century, by the beginning of a new millennium, which we didn't do. We didn't do it. Of course, yeah, this is gonna be a kind of recurring theme. It didn't do much in the way of policy, you know. So I think something we've learned is that just saying, we're going to do something doesn't amount all that much. But we've done that a number of times, and we started doing it in the 1980s. We didn't really start following up with proper policies, and by proper policies, I mean, policies that compel emitters, anyone who emits emissions to change their behavior in some way, either by replacing a technology or, or changing their actions. Until I would say the middle of the first century, or the first decade after the new millennium, so around 2005. And at the time, it wasn't the federal government that was really in the driver's seat on climate policy. It was the provincial governments. And so we saw at the time, British Columbia's government started experimenting with a carbon tax. We saw Alberta's government implement some restrictions on industrial emissions, we saw the Quebec government implement some, some transport industrial policies. We saw Ontario phase out coal fired power starting in 2007. And so it was really the provincial governments that were in the driver's seat, the federal government, you know, it was starting to tinker. But the federal government didn't really begin to take a really strong position, policy wise on climate change until around 2015. And that was the point when the federal government convened the provinces to get agreement that they should all move forward on implementing carbon pricing. All the provinces agreed except for one at the time. And so they all brought in a carbon price, either it was the federal carbon price that was imposed, or the provinces imposed their own carbon price. And that was the beginning really, of a whole slew of other policies and regulations. So since that 2015 period, I would say the federal government has really been more in the driver's seat on climate policy, and has implemented things like regulations on methane emissions, as has required the phase out of coal fired power, which is actually by 2030 of the requirement, but it's actually proceeding quite a bit quicker than the federal requirement. It's also got this carbon price in place, it's bringing in policies to require a complete cleaning of the electricity grid, a cap on oil and gas emissions and regulations on zero emission vehicles. And so really kind of multifaceted regulations coupled with this carbon price. And increasingly over the last couple of years, we're also seeing them coupled with pretty big subsidies for structural transformation of the economy. So you're seeing this play out in Ontario with battery plant investments, for example. And so I would say that's the policy kind of history, we're seeing a pretty slow start. We've known about the problem a lot longer than we've been acting on the problem. We saw ramp up provincially, after the millennium, and that we've seen the transition from the provinces to the federal government taking leadership on this file for the last decade or so.

 

Trevor Freeman  18:01

And as you said, like, slower than fast, but more to come. We're not done where we are today is not where we need to be. Yeah. So there's lots to talk about. 

 

Nicholas Rivers  18:11

Yeah, exactly. Good point. So we, we've our admissions, not surprisingly, in the absence of any policies kept on growing up until about 2005, when we started bringing in policy. Until that point, it was like, received wisdom, that anytime the economy grew, which it mostly does every year, greenhouse gas emissions would grow with it. And that that held for a long time, like maybe even a century leading up to around 2005. And then policy really started to break that chain. And so we've seen a decoupling of economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, as well as most other rich countries over the past decade and a half or so. But emissions aren't falling fast. In fact, they hardly even fall. They're falling from where they would have been, but they're not, they're more or less flat lines in Canada are beginning a very slow decline. Yeah. And we've got a maybe it's worth saying, one of the things that we've learned from the climate scientists is that emissions have to go to zero. There's not, you know, we can't solve this problem with modest cuts in emissions, which is where we're at right now that you can think of this as like filling up a bathtub with a tap, and the bathtub is going to keep filling until the tap comes off until the tap turns off completely. And so the goal, the end goal here, if we want to stop the world from heating up is stopping all emissions. And I think that's something that it took me a long time to appreciate. But it's something that I think is transformative and thinking about environmental policy. 

 

Trevor Freeman  19:45

Yeah, that's a great point. And I think that really underpins the conversation today of seeing the role in policy to start decoupling what else is happening in our society with our emissions levels, and I think we're going to pick apart some of those Pacific examples during our conversation. So you brought up carbon pricing. I think everybody listening to this podcast, probably would agree that's, you know, at least the most public if not the signature national decarbonisation policy in Canada today, it's the one that certainly gets the most notice and the most discussion. So I want to start there, I want to pick it apart a little bit. I mean, to say that it's a divisive issue would be kind of an understatement. Help us understand how carbon pricing works in Canada today? What is our current scheme that we have in this country? 

 

Nicholas Rivers  20:37

Good question. Okay, let me start out by saying what's the point of carbon pricing? Because I think it's not evident for lots of people, it seems like a crazy idea. The basic idea is that we live in a market economy. And a market economy is one where the market responds to the cost of producing something and the desire of people to buy something. And so the market sets the prices, and the market determines how much gets produced in response to the prices and how much people buy in response to the prices. It's not directed by some other entity, as a market economy tends to work best when the prices of things reflect their costs. So if I want to go buy some bread, the idea in a market economy is that the price of the bread that I buy should reflect the cost to produce the bread, right, the cost of the grains that are used to make it and the cost of labor, and the machines that are required to make it. And if that does reflect the cost, and there's a motivation for the bread maker to make the bread for me, and, and so it'll be there when I want to buy it. And the idea that behind this carbon pricing is that there is a cost to me producing carbon emissions. Right? So the cost is it makes the world a little warmer. And there's a cost in lives and livelihoods, and wellbeing, from climate change. But I don't pay a price, right, I don't pay the cost, I'm not required to pay the cost because this is a non market good. No one's producing climate change at the public good. And so the idea behind carbon pricing is, hey, the market doesn't work for this kind of good. One way we can fix it is by attaching a price to carbon emission. So it's just like bread when people use it, they have to pay the price to reflect the cost. And so that's the kind of basic fundamental and the, the idea that economists have had for a long time, is that if we properly price carbon emissions, people are going to use an awful lot less of them, because now their actions reflect the costs. Okay, so that's the kind of basic idea behind carbon pricing. Canada has brought in a carbon price federally in 2019 provinces implemented carbon prices, some of them much before that. So Alberta brought in an industrial carbon price in 2007. BC, brought in a carbon price throughout all emit for all emitters in 2008, and Quebec, as well. So, so the federal carbon price now is kind of the law of the land, in the sense that, in that 2016 meeting that I mentioned, where the federal and provincial governments agreed about carbon pricing, the agreement was we should all have a carbon price, let's make this a level playing field, let's all do our piece. And the federal government kind of took that message back and developed a federal carbon pricing benchmark, which said, Hey, provinces, you can do your own carbon price, as long as it's at least, you know, this certain level of stringency. But if you don't do it, we'll bring in our own federal carbon price in its stead. Okay, so provinces have the ability to do something on their own. And if they don't do anything, the federal government will, will bring in a carbon price. And so what we've got now is a kind of a system that's a bit piecemeal, where some provinces have their own carbon price and other provinces have not implemented a carbon price. And the federal government has brought one in and put in their place, the Federal carbon price as two parts. One is a consumer facing part. So for people like you and me, and for people or for institutions that are not giant emitters, like a university or hospital or a mall, for example. They all are subject to what the federal government calls a fuel Levy, and what the rest of us call a carbon tax. Big industrial emitters, like a pulp and paper plant or a steel plant, or a big electricity generator, are subjected to a different scheme. It's still a carbon price. But the way it works is a little different. And it's called an output based performance standard. So I'll speak briefly, on the industry side, the way it works is that each facility that produces a lot of emissions gets a target, then it's usually the same target for everyone in the sector. So at the target could be like, the target is for a steel sector, you have to produce steel with a carbon intensity of less than, say, one tonne of carbon per tonne of steel that you produce. So they get that target and if they managed to get their facility emissions below the target, they get a reward in terms of a carbon price, and if they their emissions are above the target, they have to pay a carbon price

 

Trevor Freeman  25:38

A financial reward. So they get some sort of incentive to be below that benchmark.

 

Nicholas Rivers  25:42

They basically get carbon credits, which have a financial value that you can trade them for dollars. So that's the way it works on the industry side. On the smaller emitter side, like you and me, it works a little differently. There's a levy on fuels. So any fuel that we might buy, like natural gas, or gasoline or diesel that contains carbon, or releases carbon, when it's combusted, is imposed in proportion to the amount of carbon that's released from that fuel when it's done. But, you and I are required to pay that fee. Now we don't pay it directly to the government, it's imposed at the retail level. So, you know, the gasoline station will pay the fee on our behalf, but then it'll raise the price of gasoline in the amount of the fee. 

 

Trevor Freeman  26:33

Gotcha. 

 

Nicholas Rivers  26:34

That's the main part of the system. The other thing with respect to this consumer carbon price, is that all that revenue that the government collects, is put into a pot. And then it's rebated back to us that, and you've probably heard about this, if you check your bank account, there'll be a Canada carbon rebate in your bank account, or at least each household will get one not each person. 

 

Trevor Freeman  26:55

That's right. 

 

Nicholas Rivers  26:55

So it depends on who to file their taxes First, each household who gets the rebate. So you want to be the first in your household to get your taxes done. But the money basically is raised from consumers in proportion to how much fuel they burn. And then the government collects it up, and rebates it back to consumers equally for all households. Okay, so a lot of people are confused about these parts, like why would they go to this trouble? Why would they raise money and then rebate it back? And this is an important point. This isn't a traditional tax, right? And then traditional tax governments implement the tax to raise revenue to, you know, buy or build a bridge or to fund a school or something like that. That's not what's going on here. The point of this fuel levy or carbon tax is to provide incentives for people to change their behavior. And in particular, it's to fix this market failure we talked about earlier with the cost of carbon emissions not reflected in their price. And so when the carbon price gets high, it will make a lot more sense for us as individuals to choose the low carbon action, as opposed to the high carbon action and save money doing it. And on the rebate side, the rebate is designed so that we don't get punished, we don't lose our you know, we don't become lower income as a result of this. And so it goes back to each of us equally. So no matter whether I do this, you know, whether I take the low carbon action, or I don't take the low carpet action, I get the same amount of rebate back regardless.

 

Trevor Freeman  28:26

So it opens the door, then to give people a little bit of control to work within the system to their own economic benefits. 

 

Nicholas Rivers  28:35

Exactly. 

 

Trevor Freeman  28:36

So if I can reduce my emissions and reduce my costs, I'm still gonna get the same amount back, but I'm going to be paying less of it. 

 

Nicholas Rivers  28:42

You'll come out ahead. 

 

Trevor Freeman  28:43

Yeah, it incentivizes me to do lower carbon things. So I pay less of that. 

 

Nicholas Rivers  28:48

Exactly. That's the idea. 

 

Trevor Freeman  28:49

Great. So I mean, the big question mark around all this. There's a lot of questions, obviously. But one of the big ones is, is it working? I mean, it's been in place, as you said since 2019. And in various forms across the country. Are we seeing the impact or the results that we as a society, or specifically the government intended to see from this? Are we reducing our fossil fuel consumption?

 

Nicholas Rivers  29:12

Yeah, I gotta give a two part answer. 

 

Trevor Freeman  29:15

Sure. Yeah. 

 

Nicholas Rivers  29:16

The first answer is, yes, it's working. So we've got dozens of studies that have looked at carbon prices in various jurisdictions around the world and use the data that we are able to gather to ascertain that yeah, carbon prices worldwide are definitely reducing emissions. Now, they're, they're not cutting emissions to zero, which is our goal, right? There's nowhere in the world that has implemented a carbon price and got emissions to go to zero. And you can see that in Canada emissions are basically flatlining. And so is it working? Yes, it's cutting emissions relatively where they would have been otherwise. But where it's not putting us yet on a trajectory towards getting to zero emissions. So emissions, carbon prices are still relatively low, worldwide and in Canada, and we don't really know what will happen when they ramp up to levels that might be commensurate with getting to zero emissions. But the initial forays into carbon pricing that we've seen around the world have suggested that this is definitely cutting emissions. Let me answer part two. 

 

Trevor Freeman  30:22

Sure. Yeah.

 

Nicholas Rivers  30:23

And to part two is we don't really know that we don't really know because Canada implemented a carbon price nationwide in 2019. And so we don't have another Canada that didn't implement a carbon price in 2019. But everything else was exactly the same. To compare to, that's what we want to know, if we want to know that the carbon price worked, we would really want to have two Canada's and put a carbon price in one and not put a carbon price in the other, and then compare the two. And we don't have that. And in that sense, this is the same problem as we have for any big economic policy, or any big social policy or any big policy of any kind. We don't really know, for example, if single payer health care works, and then we don't have another candidate without single payer health care, but uh, we can, you know, have some proxies to think about whether it works, we can look at other jurisdictions that don't have single payer health care and try to make some comparisons. But we don't really know what would happen in Canada if we took away single payer health care, because we don't have another candidate without single payer health care. And so there are lots of studies that suggest that carbon prices are working. But we don't have, you know, that rock solid evidence, that of exactly what emissions are being cut by this, this carbon price in this context. 

 

Trevor Freeman  31:39

Yeah, and I think that's partly why I talk about this a lot on the podcast with different guests on different topics. And it applies at the macro level with something like national policy, but also down to the micro level with, you know, what, what are individual utilities trying to do to meet the demands of the future, there really is not likely to be a single strategy that is going to get us where we need to be. It's not like we can pick that one. Policy, that one piece of technology. That's, that is the answer. That's really going to get us there. And I think that probably applies to carbon pricing as well. It's a tool in the toolbox. 

 

Nicholas Rivers  32:16

Oh, absolutely. But I mean, I mean, let's just say that that's not what's what's happening. There were no governments, either provincially or federally, that have said, Okay, we're all in on carbon pricing. Now, we're done with our climate policy. 

 

Trevor Freeman  32:29

Yeah

 

Nicholas Rivers  32:29

That's not at all the picture in Canada. So let's not, I don't want to paint that as, as the picture because as I opened up this podcast saying, you know, Canada's done a ton in the last decade on climate policy, including things like vehicle standards and coal phase out and electricity and low carbon fuel standards, and I could the list goes really, on and on.

 

Trevor Freeman  32:51

Yeah, and I will definitely pull apart some of that, I think. So my next question on this is, as I mentioned, this is a divisive topic, there are differing ideas around carbon pricing, whether we should have when how it should apply. And the nature and the beauty and the frustration of our open democratic society is that we could very well pick a different direction. In the near future, we may have a different government next time around, that government could choose to do something different. What are other options out there? That might still factor in the fact that there is a cost to emitting carbon, but be a different strategy than the existing carbon pricing? Or is there another strategy out there? Or is there not?

 

Nicholas Rivers  33:39

Yeah, for sure, you can reduce emissions without a carbon price. The carbon price is one way of reducing emissions and it does have its appealing parts. It's appealing because it allows people some flexibility to respond in the way that suits them best, you know, I can either pay the carbon price or I can reduce emissions and not pay the carbon price. And, and for that reason, it's seen as a relatively economically efficient approach to reducing emissions. But there are other ways I would say the two big other ways are regulatory approaches, and incentive based approaches. So let me go through what those look like. In a regulatory approach. We don't say, here's the financial penalty for carbon emissions. Now figure out what you want to do, like a carbon price, we say here's exactly what you should do or what you have to do. And so a regulatory example would be we've got lots of these nationally, and provincially. But a regulatory example might say you can't generate electricity with coal fired power anymore. Okay, that's a regulation or it might say, you have to cut your emissions by 10% this year and every year going forward as silver it. So certainly regulatory approaches can work, they often seem to be less flexible than a carbon price, because you don't give emitters the choice of how to respond to you imposing upon them. And so that requires the government to know quite a lot about you know, what's feasible and what's appropriate for different situations that it doesn't need to know, in the carbon price case, it didn't. So if I want to regulate you, Trevor, and to do it in a way, that's reasonable, I got to know a lot about your life to know like about what you're, you know, what possibilities you have to reduce your emissions, before I can choose some appropriate, you know, regulations to impose on you. So if I tell you, you have to use a heat pump, and then it turns out you live in a house that is not amenable to a heat pump. I've kind of made life difficult for you. Yeah. So regulations certainly have a lot of potential and, and they are being used in contexts where the kind of technology has become more clear. And I think they have a lot of, they can play a big role, they are playing a big role in driving down emissions. So again, in cases where technology is relatively clear, and there's less of that kind of work in that situation, this doesn't work in this other situation. Another approach to reduce emissions would be an incentive driven approach. So you could think of a carbon price as a disincentive, right, every time you produce emissions, I'm going to charge you. And an alternative approach would be anytime you do something that reduces emissions, I'm going to reward you. And so we have that happening here as well. So there's subsidies for heat pumps, for example, or electric vehicles. We're seeing subsidies for construction of electricity, electric, battery, battery, electric plants. So this is certainly part of that role as well. I feel like subsidies play a useful role in really nascent technologies, but driving decarbonisation with subsidies, it my view is going to be, we're not going to be able to afford the cost as a government, it's going to be too much for the government to try to replace everyone's heating system. With a subsidy. I think we're finding that out. In the case of the green Homes program, the government has pulled back here as a sight into fiscal cost.

 

Trevor Freeman  37:16

Exactly, yeah, it's popular because it helps, you know, those early adopters get that more expensive piece of technology. But to your point, we can't pay for every single one of those units, we can't provide that incentive. So it's creating more of an ecosystem that makes those make more sense. 

 

Nicholas Rivers  37:31

Yeah. 

 

Trevor Freeman  37:32

Okay. So that's great. Thanks very much, Nick, for enlightening us that we could probably spend an entire episode no question just talking about that. But I do want to push forward here on to some of these other questions. I want to dive into some specific sectors of our economy or some specific issues and understand from you the role of policy and help us drive the change that we often talk about on this show. So given the kind of where I work, and the nature of these podcasts, electricity is a big piece for us. So a constant theme on the show is how electricity is really one of the main tools that we have to decarbonize, we all know that a lot of aspects of our life that are not currently run by electricity, like our transportation and our heating, we are going to move to that fuel source as as our heating or transportation method. We're pretty fortunate in Ontario, that we have a really clean grid, it's a little bit over 90%, emissions free, meaning, you know, most of the generation of our electricity doesn't create GHG emissions. But there are other parts of the country that do rely more on fossil fuels. And to your earlier point, 90% is good, but it's not 100%, there is still that 10% that we need to decarbonize. So what are some of the tools in place now? Or something? Some things that are being considered that will help us move toward totally emissions free electricity generation in Canada?

 

Nicholas Rivers  39:02

All right, good question. So electricity is a big source of emissions on its own, producing about 10% of Canada's emissions. And as you point out, it is the central tool, which we're hoping to use to decarbonize all the other sectors. And that only works if the electricity industry is clean. And so I think you're right to point out, this is one of the first things we've got to tackle. Unfortunately, it is the big success story in Canada, emissions have been falling rapidly in electricity generation in Canada. And it's because of policy especially. One thing that we've done that's been really effective, and I mentioned it earlier, is an explicit policy to phase out coal fired power generation. coal generation produces about twice as much greenhouse gas per kilowatt hour generated as natural gas. It's very dirty. And so it's the first So you want to do what to tackle. And so Canada's federal government brought in a policy that said, by 2030, there shouldn't be any more coal generation on the grid. That's, it's a little late to the game. And that I mean, this is, I think, an important policy. But Ontario started phasing out coal in 2007. And I believe it was finished by phasing out coal in 2014. And that's why, to his credit, so clean right now, I learned as part of another project that Ontario had the biggest coal fired generation station in North America, which was one of the ones that was closed. As part of this, this coal phase out big local health improvements, as well as greenhouse gas improvements. 

 

Trevor Freeman  40:37

Yeah, that's important to say to you, there are other ancillary benefits here to policies.

 

Nicholas Rivers  40:42

I think, even if coal didn't produce greenhouse gas emissions, it would be worth closing it. And in fact that that was the reason for Ontario's coal phase out was a policy by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the environment that was worried about local health impacts, and they are dire, we lose about 10 million people worldwide every year from air pollution. So it is a sector that's really worth tackling on its own even without greenhouse gas issues. But it is a big greenhouse gas emitter. And that's the first thing we want to do. And we're being successful, there are some coal fired generating stations left in Canada, but they are many fewer than they were a decade ago. And, they will be phased out by 2030. I think before 2030, in most cases. Aster coal, which is the dirtiest fuel, we've got to tackle natural gas. Natural gas is going to be the main source of emissions in our electricity sector, once the coal is gone, and we're not yet in a position to get rid of natural gas from electricity grids. Natural gas is super useful, because it can ramp up and down really quickly. You can, I mean, I'm not an Electricity System Operator, but my understanding is you can basically flick the up switch and electricity, the gas turbine will go up, you know, in terms of power output pretty much right away. And then you can press the down switch and go down right away. That is not at all the case, for example, with a nuclear power station. 

 

Trevor Freeman  42:06

Exactly. Yep, exactly. 

 

Nicholas Rivers  42:08

And so gas is useful. And it becomes more useful when you put a lot of renewables on the grid, because renewables do fluctuate quite quickly. And, you know, if the sun goes behind the cloud, for example, or if the wind hits a gust, and so you want to be able to respond to those fluctuations with some other source that can go up and down quite quickly. And so we're using that natural gas for that role right now, that backup role. And, and there's not a, there's not a straightforward substitution for all of that gas capacity right now. I think in the near term, what we want to do is stop using or dramatically slow down using natural gas, for providing bulk energy. So bulk energy, I mean, not this kind of quick response function that natural gas plays, but the kind of 24/7 kind of energy that that we also need in society, we should be trying to displace gas's role in providing that, and we can do it relatively cost effectively. Now, with wind and solar electricity or nuclear power in Ontario. 

 

Trevor Freeman  43:11

Yeah, that's our base load is what we call that So absolutely, that that load that's always there, if we can make sure that load at least is completely carbon free, that's a big win for sure.

 

Nicholas Rivers  43:21

Exactly. And so I would say be looking for opportunities to get wind and solar, and maybe nuclear or geothermal to be providing that bulk energy and start retaining natural gas for uniquely that backup role. And we're starting to see regulations that are developed with that aim in mind. So Canada is currently consulting on what it calls its clean electricity regulation, which is designed to basically limit gas to a backup role by 2035. So it is a regulation that is intent on getting rid of gas as a provider of bulk energy, and limiting it to only providing, you know, a certain number of hours of year of backup capacity. So it's not saying you can't have gas on the grid, but it says you shouldn't be using gas to provide your main source of power. Gotcha. So that's a policy that's not implemented yet. It's being developed. It's being consulted on and we'll see what the final version of that policy looks like. But I think that's basically the right angle to be trying to limit gas to smaller contributions. And eventually, we're going to want to figure out another source of energy that can provide that kind of high frequency or high reliability backup power. And that's tricky to do. Because gas does play that unique role. And so it's not something we need to do right away, but it's something that we should be thinking about how to provide that in the future. 

 

Trevor Freeman  44:55

Yeah, I mean, that raises a great point and kind of leads into my Next question really well. There are certainly things we need to develop, things we need to figure out moving forward on, not just the policy side, but the technology side. In order to address what we have to do for climate change, what role does policy government play in supporting research and development of accelerating these new technological advances that we need, you know, in short order here? 

 

Nicholas Rivers  45:29

Another good question. Okay. Let me start by saying, for our short term climate goals, and our short term climate goal nationally, is to reduce emissions by 40%. By 2030, an ambitious goal, we have the technology we need. 

 

Trevor Freeman  45:44

Yeah

 

Nicholas Rivers  45:45

The IEA, the International Energy Agency, the Canadian climate Institute, have done reports that try to figure out, you know, what we might or what pathway we might follow to get emissions down to 40, or 50%. And the common assessment, and I think it's reasonable, is that we have what we need to cut emissions by half. So we don't need to invent anything new, right away. But to cut emissions to zero. And this is like a mid century 2050 kind of goal, we probably do need to invent some new technologies. Some things like I just mentioned, like figuring out ways to produce firm power. So that kind of firming role that natural gas plays that's clean, would be an example, or figuring out ways to provide zero carbon, long distance transport, or zero carbon, concrete or cement, for example, yet another example. So we do have things to figure out, by all means. I would say the government can play a really big role here. And the government does play a big role here. Maybe we're thinking about how technology gets better. Before we start thinking about what the government can do. technology gets better in two big ways. One is, like before it's ready to be sold on the market. technology gets better through a deliberate research and development process. And so this is firms, or universities or national labs, working on, you know, new types of renewable energy. There's lots of work, for example, new types of solar cells happening right now, or new types of batteries. And this is like the deliberate efforts to invent new technologies for research and development. But the other big way that technology can improve is through the deployment process. And in fact, I think most of the big cost improvements for new technologies happen on the latter side. So it's like we've left after we've invented the basic technology, the scale up process, the economies of scale, deliver big cost gains, and performance improvements. And what we call learning by doing. It's like this process of just getting better at doing something by doing it lots of times. And solar is a really good example of that. You guys have probably talked about how solar on this podcast is so important, but solar has fallen and cost 1000 fold over the last 40 years. Yeah, 1000 fold that's crazy. And much of the cost decline, adults, especially over the last 15 years, has been learning by doing has been us just getting really good at squeezing out all the inefficiencies in the manufacturing process and, and very small improvements, but continuous improvements in the efficiency process of like actually harvesting the solar energy in the cell, such that the cost has continuously fallen by by, well, I don't know exactly the number per year, we talked about a learning curve, falling per number of technologies deployed. So every time solar installations double, we tend to see about a 15 to 20% cost decline. 

 

Trevor Freeman  48:57

Gotcha. 

 

Nicholas Rivers  48:58

And so I would say that that learning process is important as well. And the government can play a big role in both of those processes. Right? It certainly supports basic research and development. And this can be academic or industry research. Candidates don't do a great job on this front, we have quite low return development, investments compared to poor countries, and so are kind of free riding on on r&d investments compared to more innovative countries. And then the other big role for the government would be in helping to deploy new technologies and spur along that learning by doing process. And so that could be like providing niche markets for new technologies or through government procurement. You know, government could might say even though this new technology is a little more expensive, we can see it has a long term future and we're gonna we're gonna we're going to commit to buying it for government purposes, and government itself is a really big market, so that can be a big incentive for them. For cost declines, and it can just, you know, spur deployment. So we're seeing that with electric cars right now, the government is providing subsidies for people to buy electric cars. And one of the reasons that it does that is to help improve the technology. 

 

Trevor Freeman  50:13

Yeah, and just for our listeners out there, you know, what, what Nicholas is describing is not unique to green technology to climate change technology. This is sort of a standard approach for technology development over the last, I don't know, centuries. Is that fair to say? 

 

Nicholas Rivers  50:31

Yeah, the early ones, the reports that I've seen on learning by doing came from airplane manufacturing, right. So when people were learning to make wide body airplanes, researchers observed the same kind of cost improvements in that process, as we're currently observing in, for example, batteries, or electrolyzers, or solar panels. 

 

Trevor Freeman  50:52

Yeah. And that's, that's encouraging, and that we kind of know as a society, how to help technology move along, if there's the political will. And then if ultimately the market decides, yeah, this is something we want, then that iterative process can happen to help get that cost down, as you said, learn by doing, figure out the installation cost, figuring out the manufacturing, supply chain issues, and really making a viable technology. 

 

Nicholas Rivers  51:17

Yeah. 

 

Trevor Freeman  51:18

Okay, so it's Trevor here, breaking into my own podcast. We're gonna pause there. As I said, at the beginning, this is really a long conversation. There's a lot to get through. And there's a lot more to that we talked about that Nicholas and I talked about, so we wanted to break it into two episodes. So this will be the end of Part One. Thanks for sticking with us and joining us today, and we look forward to having you back for part two that will be released at our next episode. So thanks very much, and we'll talk to you soon. Thanks for tuning in to another episode of The think energy podcast. Don't forget to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts, and it would be great if you could leave us a review. It really helps us spread the word. As always, we would love to hear from you. Whether it's feedback, comments, or an idea for a show or guests. You can always reach us at think energy at hydro ottawa.com