Going Green - the Made-in-Canada Way

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

VICTORIA - Gary Lunn waves off the offer of coffee from the breakfast server at the historic Empress Hotel. "Never drink the stuff. Don't want it to stunt my growth," he grins.

To see the federal natural resources minister, you'd get the self-deprecating quip. Let's just say the vertically challenged Lunn does not stand head and shoulders above a crowd.

There's also not much doubt he's got the smaller political profile in a climate-change plan being crafted and carried primarily by Environment Minister Rona Ambrose.

However, Lunn wants to project a green image and midway through his orange juice he gets a bright, albeit slightly risky, idea. He, the minister in charge of energy, would cold call on a local solar-lighting manufacturer, the better to showcase the potential of homegrown B.C. green technology to a visiting journalist.

The risk, of course, is that the low-profile Lunn wouldn't be recognized, his identity would be doubted and he'd be told to buzz off at the front door.

When we arrived at the company known only as Carmanah, his name didn't ring a bell to the receptionist, who aspires to a career in journalism, but the plant manager gasped at the sight of Lunn and dropped everything to give us a tour.

There's something odd about having a world leader in solar power located in Victoria, which can be a city the sun forgets for weeks on end in the winter rainy season. But this is one of those niche operations that have collectively turned energy-glutton Canada into an incubator of globally exported environmental technologies.

Carmanah invented, patented and now assembles tens of thousands of small box-shaped solar LED lights for open sea buoys, traffic warning lights and airport runways visible from up to six kilometres away. Given that boats, cars and planes rely on their product for critical navigation guidance, the failure rate must be close to absolute zero. The airfield at Kandahar Afghanistan, for example, uses its lights on the runways.

Just 15 years old, Carmanah sold 90,000 units in 110 countries last year and sees only massive growth ahead as solar panels become increasingly efficient and economical.

But Lunn is frank about solar power's limitations and Ambrose echoes his views. Solar is a slice, and a small one at that, in the overall drive to wean Canadians off a steady diet of oil.

"It's on the fringes along with wind power. To be considered a world leader we have to deliver clean energy, but fossil fuels will be the biggest piece of the pie," Lunn says.

"We all like to think solar and wind are going to be the next big thing, but they're not going to be for a while," adds Ambrose in a later interview.

"We need to face the fact that fossil fuels are here to stay and we need to learn to burn them more cleanly. We can't ignore that and pretend we're going to run Canada on wind energy tomorrow."

Both ministers champion clean coal (a gasification process that could turn one of nature's dirtiest fuels into clean-burning energy), nuclear power and biofuels as key parts of the plan to clean up Canadian air and reduce the country's greenhouse-gas emissions from oil and gas production.

"But the largest source of untapped energy in Canada is the energy we waste," Lunn says.

In the days to follow, I'll be visiting green technologies across Canada that, if the government backs up its talk with policy, will be encouraged through tax or other incentives to expand into the mainstream.

They all share a common thread. They are all made-in-Canada steps to increase energy efficiencies or reduce pollution that dovetail with the Conservative government's domestic-technology agenda.

And they reflect what is increasingly ingrained in public thinking - that with or without the Kyoto accord, the time to think green has been overtaken by the need to act green.

"Now is a crucial time," Ambrose says. "The public is on side, the prime minister has made this a priority and industry is doing it and not just as a public relations exercise.

"Their shareholders are demanding that corporations take notice of environmental opportunities and invest in environmental technology and are even asking companies to publish on the Internet what they've done for the environment. It's a real grassroots movement and a great opportunity to push this thing through and forward," she says.