By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on June 10, 2020.
Explorig food production and renewable energy synergies
James Byrne, Kent Peacock,
Paul Hazendonk and John Vokey
University of Lethbridge
Vegetables. An important part of a healthy diet. Eat a balanced diet; eat your vegetables. That’s why Canadians spend many billions of dollars every year on imported vegetables from the United States, Mexico and other tropical regions. It’s winter; it’s cold! We can’t grow vegetables hereÉ or can we?
Food is energy; energy is food. Plants convert solar energy, water and nutrients into biomass we consume. But think of the multi-thousand-kilometre energy footprint in that California head of lettuce. Think of the greenhouse gas footprint; the air pollution footprint. There are 20 million heads of lettuce produced every year in a greenhouse near Coaldale. Why not 200 million? Two billion? 20 billion? Why not broccoli? Cale? Carrots? Tomatoes? Why not fruit?
Climate change is causing the southwestern U.S. to warm and dry – a big problem for an area historically know to be substantially arid, with extensive deserts. The Colorado River feeds millions of acres of irrigation in seven southwestern U.S. states, and Mexico. But, the Colorado river is drying up, and when Canadians consume California lettuce, 95 per cent is probably Colorado River water. Climate change will alter the food production geography in western North America. The western U.S. will lose substantial agricultural production; a production void that Canada’s southern Prairies can replace. We have extensive irrigation production, and under climate change, we will have a warmer, dryer climate. The southern Prairies should become a high-quality food production corridor. Investments in enhancing our food production capacity on the southern Prairies will create careers now, at a time when so many Albertans, Canadians, need work. But food is energy, and energy is food. Can southern Alberta, Canada, the world, afford to burn fossil fuels to produce all that food, given fossil fuel pollution is radically warming global climate? We can afford the energy; but not the fossil energy. We have another southern Prairie advantage.
Sustainable Canada dialogues (SCD) is a national alliance of academics working on climate change solutions. SCD has published multiple papers and reports showing the most favourable Western Canada location for developing clean green renewable energy; solar and wind energy, is in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. We have the potential to become a major renewable energy production zone for all of Western Canada. Solar and wind energy are the most cost-effective addition to our energy capacity now, and technology is making solar and wind more affordable. The southern Prairies can become a renewable energy corridor.
But sometimes the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. We need to better connect the interprovincial electric grid. For much less than the cost of an oil or gas pipeline, we can expand the east-west electrical grid connectivity from British Columbia to Manitoba. Connecting the renewable energy capacity on the southern Prairies with existing hydroelectricity in British Columbia and Manitoba will provide a stable, non-polluting energy system for Western Canada, 12 months of the year. The southern Canadian Prairies should become a renewable energy production corridor. Investments in enhancing our renewable energy production capacity on the southern Prairies will create careers now, at a time when so many Albertans, Canadians, need work.
We have two aligning corridors. The natural advantages on the southern Prairies are for a food production corridor and a renewable energy production corridor. But food is energy and energy is food. Renewable energy is the critical input needed to allow the southern Prairies to become a regional; perhaps a global leader, in high-quality, sustainable food and energy production.
There’s an additional huge advantage. Creating renewable energy production on the southern Prairies will help make up for some of the massive greenhouse gas footprint in Alberta and Saskatchewan. We need regional and global public relations actions if there is to be a market for any of our oil and gas products during the regional and global renewable energy transition.
We need southern Prairie leaders to speak with one voice. Co-operate! MPs, MLAs, leaders of Indigenous bands; mayors, reeves, councillors for all southern communities; counties, municipalities. We need leaders of institutions: universities, colleges, school boards, health units, to speak with one voice – co-operate. Regional industry, we need your voices, and we all need synergistic food and energy corridors!
Agriculture has always been an economic pillar on the southern Prairies. But now, enhanced agriculture, enhanced food production, combined synergistically with our natural advantages in renewable energy production É those are the economic advantages for the southern Prairies. All southern Prairie leaders have to speak with one voice to our provincial and federal governments! They have to hear us, and they have to invest our taxes in us. We have to lead our provincial and federal leaders – we have to commit to buy our own food, our own power. Building the economy on the southern Prairies means building our synergistic food and renewable energy security – with our own food and energy dollars. Alberta has the avenue in place: PPAs (power purchase agreements). Southern PPAs and parallel FPAs (food purchase agreements) will build regional alliances and a diverse, vibrant, self-sufficient economy.
In 2020 and beyond, PPAs and FPAs are the employment engines needed to boom our economy. These investments make us more resilient to the growing challenges of climate change. Growing our food and renewable energy capacities – that is technology and expertise saleable to a world that will be spending trillions of dollars on renewable energy and food security. Now is the time to invest, cooperate. Let’s all speak with one voice.
James Byrne, Kent Peacock, Paul Hazendonk and John Vokey are professors at the University of Lethbridge.