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The Suits Are Flocking to Renewables

Investors like the 'predictability' of clean energy.

Richard Littlemore 18 May

Richard Littlemore is a Vancouver speechwriter and consultant with a background in climate change and sustainability.

If you're looking for revolutionaries, radicals and upstart disrupters, you wouldn't generally search among a crowd of municipal bureaucrats, policy wonks and businesspeople, all suited up for a conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver.

But the 350-odd delegates to the first Renewable Cities Global Learning Forum made it clear last week that revolution is decidedly their goal. They intend, by every means possible, to consign fossil fuels to the dustbin of history. And much, much sooner than most people are prepared to expect.

This is not journalistic interpretation or a suggestion from the most optimistic and least powerful delegates, idling on the side of the room. Ross Beaty, founder and still chair of the second-largest silver mining company in the world (Pan American Silver Corp.), and one of the conference's main sponsors, said it plainly halfway through the first day: "It's a revolution."

The "it" in question is the corporate swing from non-renewable fuel sources like coal and oil to the alternatives that Beaty now makes available through his most recent venture, Alterra Power, a mid-sized renewable energy company with solar, wind, hydro and geothermal operations in B.C., Ontario and Iceland.

In a panel discussion, in answer to a question about ethical divestment of fossil fuels, Beaty said, "It's almost irrelevant. Coal, especially, is a dinosaur industry. It's going out of busines .... It's just a bad industry to invest in, whether you divest for ethical reasons or not."

'Climate unaware' beware

That particular point had been prompted by a presentation from Karen Lockridge, a principal at Mercer, a global consultancy with 20,000 employees working in 40 countries around the world, helping the wealthy manage their health, retirements and vast amounts of money. Mercer is currently wrapping up a report on "strategic asset allocation" in an age of climate change, and its 16 partners on this project manage more than $1.5 trillion in assets. Lockridge said that the news for "the climate unaware" is clear, even if rendered in strained language of the super-serious consultant: "negative returns can result."

On the flipside, Beaty stressed that "the market likes renewables." Sources like solar, wind and geothermal are "clean, long-term and predictable" -- and the big institutional investors really like predictability. That's why Alterra has been able to raise more than $2.5 billion for projects in the last five years.

That, and the fact that the price of renewables is crashing. Zachary Shahan, director and editor of the blog CleanTechnica, "the #1 most-visited clean tech-focused site on the internet," presented a series of graphs in a Pecha Kucha event on opening night of the conference showing that the price of solar panels had dropped exponentially from $76 per kilowatt hour* in 1977 to $0.74 in 2013 -- and yes, that's 74 cents.

Beaty reported that Alterra had recently offered to build a new facility guaranteeing solar energy at a price of 8.5 cents a watt, and they still lost the contract to a lower bidder. Shahan added that the cheapest recent contract was delivered in Dubai this year -- at six cents per kilowatt hour.

The most immediate implication of all this radical talk is that the City of Vancouver's recent commitment to convert the city to 100 per cent renewable power isn't as flaky or out of the question as the critics have suggested.

Shauna Sylvester, director of the Simon Fraser University Centre for Dialogue, which launched the Renewable Cities program and convened the conference, said one of the most interesting sessions involved Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston sitting on the stage fielding great ideas from the diverse, committed and highly motivated audience. The delegates, hailing from global innovation capitals such as Copenhagen; Denmark; Melbourne, Australia and Yokohama, Japan; lined up to give the most practical, practicable advice possible.

Renewables less expensive

One of the best bits surely came from Kenneth Nolan, manager of power resources for the Burlington Electric Department in Vermont. Burlington, which is also chasing the goal of 100-per-cent renewable power, has been able to lower its power costs by 40 per cent since 2009, exclusively with renewable sources.

But Nolan said the best and hardest lesson for his municipality came immediately after hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, damaging oil platforms and closing refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, causing oil and natural gas prices to rise.

Burlington, which Nolan described as gas-addicted, found that "the wholesale price of our energy tripled."

Now, Nolan said Burlington is committed to one, ultimately optimistic principal: "Manage for risk, not cost."

The risk, for the investor as well as the climate, appears all to be on the fossil fuel side. If there was a single "global learning" from the first Renewable Cities Global Learning Forum, it's that cities that don't recognize that risk will face incalculable costs in the long-term.

*Story corrected May 21 at 9:45 a.m.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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