Saskatchewan is on the cusp of a green energy switch: climate journalist

While the oil and gas industries remain powerful forces in the province, some experts believe Saskatchewan - as well as the rest of Canada - is on the cusp of a major green energy switch.

2020s to be a 'big, disruptive decade for energy transition,' Markham Hislop says

Markham Hislop says Saskatchewan, as a windy and sunny province, is well-positioned to become a leader in green energy. (CBC)

While the oil and gas industries remain powerful forces in the province, some experts believe Saskatchewan — as well as the rest of Canada — is on the cusp of a major green energy switch. 

Transitions to green energy are already happening throughout Saskatchewan, as cities like Regina and Saskatoon implement their climate action plans and citizens scope out solar panels, electric vehicles and waste-reduction options.

Markham Hislop, a Saskatchewan-born energy and climate journalist, says the current move toward green energy mirrors events of the late 19th and early 20th century when steam and horses were replaced by cars, trucks and tractors powered by internal combustion engines. 

"Many Saskatchewanians will remember stories of their great-grandparents' big steam tractors before the Great War, and smaller gas tractors working on in the fields by 1920," said Hislop, who is also the founder of Energi Media and host of the podcast Energi Talks.

"The internal combustion engine technology had become better and better and better and cheaper and cheaper to the point where cars and trucks and tractors could compete.... And certainly by the end of WWII, you couldn't find a horse in a Saskatchewan field anywhere."

The market will dictate how much demand there is for oil. So Saskatchewan is going to have to adapt to changing demand for its product.- Markham Hislop

Now, he sees that same process of improved technology, lower prices and rapidly-accelerating change happening with renewable energy sources. 

"In the late 1990s, you had electric cars and wind turbines and solar panels that were introduced to the market, and they got better and better and better," he said.

"And now, generating electricity with wind and solar is the cheapest way to do it. In just a couple of years, an electric car on the dealer's lot will cost you the same as a gas-powered car. So this is going to be the big disruptive decade for energy transition."

Hislop recognizes the idea of moving away from coal, oil and gas can be a hard sell for people in Saskatchewan and Alberta particularly, where so many people are employed in those sectors. But Hislop says he is not pushing an agenda with these claims — just recognizing an inevitability. 

"The market is going to change whether they like it or not," he said.

"As electric vehicles are adopted in a big way globally, the United States, Europe and China are going to lead. And those are the biggest auto markets in the world. And the market will dictate how much demand there is for oil. So Saskatchewan is going to have to adapt to changing demand for its product."

Changes for oil and gas workers

A 2020 analysis by Ernst & Young predicted that 30 per cent of Canadian oil and gas workers could lose their jobs within the next decade due to advances in robotics, machine learning and other technologies. And according to Hislop, those who remain in the industry will see major shifts to their work life as well.

"If you're an oil and gas worker now, your job is going to change," he said. "It will have data on it. You will be supervising computers instead of working on a rig with your hands, down on the floor." 

But Hislop says there are actions workers can be taking now to make sure they remain in high demand as the industry becomes ever more technology-oriented. 

"If you want to work in the energy sector, take the opportunity to upgrade your skills, because a different skill set is going to be required — but, going forward, deep industry knowledge is also valued," he said.

"So if you've got that combination where you've been in the industry for 10 or 20 years, and you can manage to upgrade your skills, you actually might have a pretty good shot at keeping your job and being secure for the rest of your career."

And Hislop says there will be opportunities for the existing energy industries to adapt and stay relevant in the decades to come.

"For instance, [because] Saskatchewan produces about 400 million cubic feet of gas a day, it could look at turning that into blue hydrogen, which is basically taking the carbon dioxide out of the natural gas, leaving you with hydrogen," he said. 

Hislop also thinks Saskatchewan is particularly well-positioned to become a leader in green energy, largely because of our geographic location.

"Down in old windy Regina, [Saskatchewan] has all sorts of opportunities for wind and solar power," he said. "Wind and solar are cheap now, but they're going to be so much cheaper and clean, abundant, cheap electricity will transform economies. 

"You'll be able to do things and have industries and create jobs that you never imagined you could because energy becomes so cheap. Saskatchewan is ideally set up for that."