A perspective from the Smart Energy Event from April 15-16, 2024, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Commentary by Michelle Robichaud, President, Atlantica Centre for Energy.

Atlantic Canada’s premier energy conference was held in Halifax earlier this month, and the Smart Energy conference delivered a jam-packed agenda and attracted the country’s top energy minds to debate key energy topics.

I was pleased to participate in and contribute to the discussion. There were several key themes from the podium including alignment, affordability, next steps, energy literacy, and earning social license.

From the first panel, it was clear that utilities, industry and government agree on one thing; there is alignment to move toward a clean energy future. The caveat, however, was around the areas that are not yet aligned, most notably, affordability.

We are all aware of the affects of the current affordability crisis in our country and energy poverty is a term we are hearing more and more.

“We can’t afford to ask customers to pay,” Brad Coady, VP Business Development & Strategic Partnerships, NB Power.

One perspective I had not heard discussed at previous events was how technology readiness contributes to affordability.

There was a specific acknowledgement that technology is advancing well but not at the speed and scale that will help reach established clean electricity deadlines by 2030 and 2035. When the technology is not mature, like hydrogen production and grid-scale battery storage, the capacity to deploy these technologies is limited, which affects their accessibility and cost-effectiveness. To get widespread adoption and ensure the energy transition is both environmentally sustainable and economically viable, speed and scale must be achieved.

I then saw a critical gap, linking to affordability, which must be addressed to drive the energy transition forward.

When it comes to adoption, we’ve seen important national and regional movement on important technological applications such as those outlined in the Canadian SMR Roadmap and the Hydrogen Strategy for Canada. But, because key government policies still need to be finalized, industry is delaying major investments. One solution identified is to increase federal procurement and support, especially for technologies to help sectors hard to decarbonize such as heavy transportation and off-coal initiatives.

For example, non-emitting hydrogen from electrolysis may find a difficult path to contributing to domestic and global decarbonization because the electricity used in electrolysis must be cost-competitive. Right now, in Atlantic Canada, grid-connected electricity rates can be competitive, but getting off coal in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia will undoubtedly increase these rates.

As far as next steps go, there is continuing concern over a lack of details for policies not yet final, including the Clean Electricity Regulations and some Investment Tax Credits. Because of this, there was a call to start thinking a little more deeply about the importance of demonstration projects that could help to make it more visible and “real” for the public.

“People don’t know what a hydrogen economy looks like – it doesn’t look much different than today, so we must show customers,” Andy Carson, Director Energy Transition, Irving Oil.

I’ve attended several conferences over the last few years and a thought that resonated at the Smart Energy event, was that an all-the-above approach is needed. From the Canadian Gas Association calling for investments in nuclear or utilities reiterating the need for more natural gas to round out intermittent generation sources such as wind, solar and batteries, there is no singular solution. Next steps must intentionally make the best use of interim measures and build a business case for technology not yet ready for widespread adoption.

We know we’ve got it right when private sector capital deployment starts to flow,”  Duncan Rotherham, Partner Financial Advisory and Infrastructure & Capital Projects, Deloitte.  

In every room and in every session, it was abundantly clear that there is a desire for and a need for meaningfully engagements with communities and First Nations on energy projects. Messages from the podium highlighted the need for early engagement to earn social license and shared information to understand how communities want to be part of the energy transition.

All in all, buzz at the Event was a clear indication that energy is a hot topic. Energy players are at the table and looking to add value to and make strides in the energy transition. There is capital to deploy and a willingness to make investments in Atlantic Canada, but governments must speed up policy development and important legislative changes.

One area where Atlantica spends a lot of time was highlighted many sessions: energy literacy. Atlantic Canada is on the cusp of a massive transition, and change is difficult. I’m lucky to be part of these discussions and know who to call when I have questions, but the general public doesn’t. I think we all have a role to play in talking about the energy transition and helping our communities, friends, neighbours and families access unbiased resources so they can become better informed to support projects that affect their lives. A sustainable energy future in the region depends on it.