Alberta is one of the sunniest provinces in all of Canada, averaging over 2,264 hours of sunlight per year. The solar energy that falls on Alberta every day equals the energy available from all other non-renewable fossil fuels (coal, oil, oil sands and natural gas) extracted in Alberta each year.
Currently, the ability to harness this energy is tempered because of the high cost of the technology, but this is changing! If there was significant investment by the Alberta government in building a solar energy infrastructure in Alberta the possibilities for solar would be almost limitless.
Communities in Alberta are already taking the lead to build the solar revolution. Alberta's famed sunny skies are giving the town of Okotoks a chance to shine as the site of North America's first large-scale seasonal storage solar heating community. For more information, see http://www.okotoks.ca/sustainable/solar/SolarEnergy.asp
Wind is the fastest-growing source of energy in the world, increasing at an average annual rate of 35 per cent. This upward trend represents a huge investment opportunity and given the dramatic improvements in wind technology and the exploding demand for renewables this trend is only likely to continue. In addition to the demand side, every unit of electricity generated by wind power means nearly a 100 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions – a great thing if you happen to be the planet or a person living on it.
Despite the benefits of wind Canada’s wind infrastructure is sorely lacking. Canada gets only 570 megawatts of power from wind - much less than the over 30,000 megawatts of developable wind resources found in Canada, much of which is in Alberta.
Why don’t we see windmills dotting the skyline in Alberta as we do in Germany? The main reason again is cost but again we should put that cost in perspective. When the Alberta government wanted to encourage development in the tar sands it gave the industry huge subsidies and incentives to do it. If the Alberta government had the same initiative that it does for developing the dirtiest source of oil in the world, in developing one of the cleanest sources of energy we would see that Alberta’s energy mix change dramatically.
More than anything else we should be looking for ways to avoid consuming non-renewable energy sources. One way to stop burning fossil fuels is to change our transportation systems. Most of the energy generated by the tar sands isn’t generated to satisfy Alberta’s or even Canada’s energy needs. We are destroying over a quarter of the province, extracting the dirtiest source of oil in the world, and generating a growing number of social and environmental problems so we can ship it across the border and put it in the huge gas tanks of American drivers. Most of the oil from the tar sands is for U.S. transportation fuel. So not only are we destabilizing the climate by the extraction end but we are fueling further disruption and emissions in the US.
The US transportation sector accounts for 1/3 of the United States’s greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of feeding this addiction and encouraging further destruction of the planet through the use of tar sands oil, we should be promoting solutions to the transportation problem, which are just as bountiful as the energy solutions.
Building a green car
The technology exists today to dramatically improve the fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions of our vehicles. Essentially, a vehicle that is powered by an internal combustion engine is not a very efficient machine. Improvements in engines, transmissions, and vehicle design exist, but they are mostly sitting on shelves instead of making our engines more efficient. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, if we used today’s technology to clean up the internal combustion engine, our cars would get an average of 40 miles per gallon (almost double the current fleet-wide average of 21.1) and create over 140,000 jobs in the process. If we used the most efficient hybrid-electric technology in its vehicles we could average 55 mpg, and with Plug-in Hybrids the results are even more dramatic. When we consider that over 70% of the oil used in the US goes to transportation, a doubling or tripling of fuel economy would be truly astonishing.
Hybrid electric vehicles are a good step towards a more fuel-efficient fleet of vehicles. Hybrids use an electric motor and large battery to capture and store energy that is normally lost in an inefficient gasoline engine. In the most efficient hybrids, like the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic, the energy is used to help run the vehicle and can dramatically improve fuel efficiency.
Although hybrids are efficient, they still use oil. An even better solution is Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs), also called Gasoline Optional Hybrid Electric Vehicles (GO-HEVs). The idea is to enlarge the battery pack in a normal hybrid so that it can hold more energy, and add a plug, so that the car can get the energy from the grid or from rooftop solar power. With a plug-in hybrid, which uses a battery-powered electric motor for the first 30 to 50 miles, most American commuters would rarely if ever need to fill up or even top off with gasoline unless making a long trip. Engineers estimate that with a plug-in hybrid electric car, an American driver could save a whopping 85% of their gas consumption!
Ford, GM and Toyota once mass-produced full-sized vehicles that were completely independent from oil. Ignoring demand, Ford, GM and Toyota eliminated the program and destroyed all but a few hundred of its only zero-emission vehicles. EVs are occasionally available today through Ebay and other, mostly online sources, and custom EVs are being made.
The greatest advantage to the EV is that it has no gas tank. The only power for the car is its electric motor and a very large battery pack, which is plugged in to recharge. Ford’s EVs had a range of 80-100 miles; advances in battery development give the latest EVs up to a 300 mile range. The drawbacks of EVs today is that they have become extremely rare; with no major auto manufacturer currently producing EVs in the U.S., Americans no longer have easy access to petroleum-free, pollution-free cars.