The 'solar coaster' and how green jobs rise and fall with changing governments
Provincial flip-flops on climate change policies left fledgling sectors with winners and losers
Companies trying to grow in Canada's renewable energy sector say they face difficult and uncertain futures when provincial governments such as Alberta or Ontario change their methods of addressing climate change.
That includes Michael Daciw, who told CBC Radio's The Cost of Living that installing solar panels was not his first calling.
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After a career in Calgary's oil-and-gas sector, he decided to strike a new path in the renewable energy sector when economic conditions seemed ripe for a green boom in 2016.
"There were over 100 companies doing solar installations in Alberta for the two, two and a half years that that program was in place."
According to Daciw, at his company's busiest point it had about 40 projects at various stages of development.
The cyclical nature of the the rebates and financial incentives … they actually call it the 'solar coaster' in the industry.- Michael Daciw, EVOLVSolar
Today his company, EVOLVSolar, is one of only a handful still in operation in the province despite the work in Alberta having mostly dried up.
"Yeah it's kind of scary," said Daciw. "Just with the cyclical nature of the the rebates and financial incentives, that's part of the business and they actually call it the 'solar coaster' in the industry, which is very apt."
So what caused this sudden change of direction on the "solar coaster?"
Kenney, Ford governments reversed green policies
Albertans elected a new government in 2019, giving Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party a majority mandate. Its first order of business was to repeal the carbon levy, seen as the centrepiece of the previous NDP government's Climate Leadership Plan.
"We kind of saw the writing on the wall with the election," said Daciw, who then decided to pivot his company to focus on expanding into Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
Despite the pivot, Daviw still had to lay off staff in Alberta.
And it was the same story across the province when the UCP government decided to scrap the various energy efficiency subsidies encouraging Albertans to install solar panels or retrofit their homes with green upgrades such as tankless water heaters.
One day those jobs were growing but the next day, they were gone.
It's a familiar experience for Dianne Saxe, Ontario's former environmental commissioner. According to Saxe, she witnessed an entire sector grow and wither within months of a change in government in 2018.
Soon after sweeping the Ontario legislature at Queen's Park, Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative government cancelled a range of climate change related policies, including the province's cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions.
"We had a large and growing clean tech sector. It was one of the healthiest in the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development]," said Saxe.
"We had a huge number of people in renewable energy and clean tech, a whole range of innovators and entrepreneurs that we need for the green economy. We also had a lot of interest from international funders," she said, adding all of it is "pretty much gone" now due to the sudden flip in strategy.
Let the free market decide?
Critics of green subsidies question their merit.
From that perspective, if enough people want to install solar panels on their roofs, a market will emerge to provide services at competitive prices.
Government incentives are partly there to back up some of the policies that they've come up with since they want consumers to act in a certain way.- Raja Bajwa, Economics Society of Northern Alberta
Under that framework, it makes no sense for the government to intervene. The number of green jobs which disappeared once subsidy or incentive programs ceased only reinforced skepticism on the part of free market proponents.
"One would look at this as more as trying to help kickstart a certain market that's not there or that that's fledgling," he said.
"The hope is that really there's going to be economies of scale. There will be a technological breakthrough and this will eventually lead to cheaper products and a market that can be sustained."
At the same time, Bajwa acknowledged the theory that sometimes, in his words — "governments aren't great at picking winners and losers."
What about the future?
Beyond the loss of some 750 renewable contracts in Ontario, Dianne Saxe said the consequences of a green policy flip-flop have a long-term effect.
"It makes a permanent difference when you lose researchers, you lose businesses, you discourage students, you drive away investment," said Saxe.
She likened it to personal relationships.
"If you burn your friends and your neighbors even if you apologize a couple of years later and try to go straight, they're going to take quite a while to watch before they sure they can trust you again. Breaking trust, breaking contracts, it takes a long time to recover," Saxe warned.
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In Calgary, Michael Daciw believes the "solar coaster" will rise again, and renewables will become more efficient and affordable over time.
"The capital is there, the willingness is there," said Daciw.
"We're hoping over time, more and more of Canada gets on board."
Written by Falice Chin, with files from and produced by Tracy Fuller.
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