Energy efficiency can help Alberta meet GHG reduction targets: Interview with Monica Curtis

energy efficiencyEnergy Efficiency Alberta will work with consumers, businesses, and oil and gas sector to reduce energy use

Three decades ago, Amory Lovins introduced the idea of the “negawatt” – a unit of energy saved by using energy more efficiently that could actually be traded in the marketplace like any commodity. The negawatt hasn’t caught on yet, but the idea of saving energy – energy efficiency – is front and centre for global governments trying to encourage ever higher economic growth with less and less energy.

energy efficiency

American energy efficiency pioneer Amory Lovins.

The International Energy Agency latest report on energy efficiency found that energy intensity — the amount of energy used per unit of GDP — improved by 1.8% percent in 2015, triple the rate of the past decade.

More growth, less energy.

What’s even more encouraging is that the improvement in energy efficiency occurred in the midst of low energy prices.

“Energy efficiency is the one energy resource that all countries possess in abundance,” Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA executive director said in a press release. “I welcome the improvement in global energy efficiency, particularly at a time of lower energy prices. This is a sign that many governments push the energy efficiency policies, and it works.”

energy efficiency

Minister of Environment and Parks Shannon Phillips.

Alberta is late to the energy efficiency game. Environment Minister Shannon Phillips announced the creation of the Energy Efficiency Agency last Nov. and this month hired Monica Curtis to head up the new organization.

I caught up with Curtis as she began the task of hiring staff and working with her board of directors to determine the agency’s strategic direction. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

MarkhamI’ve argued in past columns that energy efficiency is a great place for governments to invest public policy money because the technologies are well developed and mature and saving energy is a good bang for the taxpayer’s dollar. What’s your take on that argument?

CurtisI think you’re absolutely correct. Energy efficiency does provide a very reliable cost-saving to homeowners and businesses who chose to implement that. But there are barriers. There are information barriers. There’s the fact that electricity and natural gas usage is fairly invisible on a day-to-day basis, so it’s not easy to connect what the Agency will be doing to the specific energy savings. The list goes on in terms of those information barriers that make it hard for people to know what kind of energy efficiency to invest in, in terms of energy efficiency.

energy efficiency

Monica Curtis. Photo: Metro News.

We can work with contractors, retailers, and distributors, to help them offer the most energy-efficient alternative available.  We can look at financial incentives, whether it is subsidized financing or grants or rebates.

So there’s a whole range of mechanisms and I’m really excited about the opportunity that energy efficiency Alberta provides to bring that whole energy mix in Alberta.

MarkhamWill your work be primarily with consumers and retailers, or will you be working with industry – including the oil sands, which has always been accused of being energy-intensive and maybe not the most efficient energy user?

CurtisI’m going to say that there is a two-part answer to that. The specific approach that we might take to each marketplace is something that I need to spend more time with the board really understanding the direction that they want to take.

What I can say is that generally there was the advisory panel report completed that had input from literally hundreds of stakeholder groups and individuals across Alberta. There is clearly an interest from all segments, including the oil and gas segment and more generally, the industrial sector, to improve energy efficiency. The advisory panel put together a 13-point plan that includes small-scale renewables, on-site renewables and working with all of the facility types across the province.

The first program has been residential in nature, and then there is a small business non-profit commercial facility program that’s in the midst of being launched as well. That’s a really good place for any new program to start; there’s a wide mix of contractors and home-owners and businesses that can engage with the program quickly.

The scale of planning needed to do that size of implementations really allows us to bring some results quickly, but there is no doubt that Energy Efficiency Alberta does want to serve all of the province. We’ll be working through with the board of directors and working from the advisory panel report to figure out what that actually looks like.

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Markham: Generally, when we talk about energy efficiency, we mean ways to get GHG emissions down from residential and commercial buildings, from industry, etc. My impression is that there’s been a change in focus lately. Business is beginning to understand that using energy more efficiently is a big cost-saver because energy is such a big component of business cost. Is that fair to say? 

CurtisI agree with that completely. I think there’s really three opportunities that energy efficiency programs like the one being proposed for Energy Efficiency Alberta can support.

One, it is a mechanism for government and for the province as a whole to address climate change issues and carbon reduction. There’s no doubt about that.

Two, it is an economic driver. When you are paying less for utilities and less for energy usage in all of its form, that means that you have dollars available either to go to the bottom line as profit or to be redeployed for other more important priorities. 

Three, the energy efficiency industry is growing, so it does create an opportunity for job creation and diversification of the economy. 

Markham: Is Alberta a laggard in energy efficiency?

CurtisLaggard is a pretty strong word. Alberta has not had the kind of province-wide energy efficiency efforts that you see in neighbouring jurisdiction and in many jurisdictions across North America, so in that sense, it is fair to characterize Alberta as a laggard.

I do think that individual business and homeowners have done a lot of really good work and there are contractor networks in place today. There are homebuilders, for example, that really focus on net zero and low-energy homes. There are commercial buildings that are taking advantage of high-efficiency technologies and implementing them, so I think that there is a lot of good activity that can be leveraged. 

Markham: Is the Alberta oil and gas industry open to energy efficiency?

Curtis: Industry and businesses are looking at “How can I take advantage of the emerging technologies to support my business and my growth?” And I don’t think the oil and gas industry is any different, thought it might be different operating systems or technologies.

Markham: What role do new technologies play in driving changes in public opinion and public policy?

Curtis: Energy technology is no different than our telephone technology, which has evolved and really changed the way we look at that communications devices. Energy technologies are evolving in the same way.  

This is the digital age. Energy efficiency is growing and taking advantage of that technology, particularly computer-based technologies that are being applied to energy systems. That is both making it more accessible and reducing cost and driving more interest in energy-efficient alternatives.

Markham: What about small energy systems, what are those?

Curtis: Nothing more complicated than things like residential solar or combined heat and power. All sorts technologies that can now be applied at smaller scales that were once only available either at utility or industrial-scale.  It’s really that simple: having access to energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies for smaller scale applications that can still prove to be cost-effective.

Markham: Can Alberta become a hub for the development of clean energy technologies? I’m a bit skeptical of that because so many countries – like China and the US – have a big head start on Canada.

Curtis: The short answer is “yes” and I think the advisory panel agreed with that perspective because one of the mandates of Energy Efficiency Alberta is to create or to strength the energy efficiency industry within the province.

The great thing about energy efficiency is it uses all of the same building blocks as any other energy-related services, which we have so much of here in Alberta. There are a lot of transferable skills – engineering and design, electricians, mechanical services – all of those kinds of things really draw on the same basic skill sets. I think there is a really great platform given the legacy of the energy industry in Alberta to really build from to expand the energy efficiency industry in the province. 

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