Downtown Calgary. Photo by Bernard Spragg.

Today’s highlight: a quote with the phrase “rainbows and unicorn farts.”

I’d never write such a thing but when a prominent politician utters that phrase, then it’s sort of fair game. So perhaps with that promise you’ll make it through some of the statistics that lead up to that colorful language?

For the past two days, I’ve been looking at highlights from an annual report on the business health of major cities around the world, trying to distill lessons that we can apply here in Southwest and Southside Virginia. On Monday, I identified five big things that seem common to the most prosperous cities: universities that spin off startups, a young workforce, an educated workforce, an activist government and low taxes. (Yes, those last two seem contradictory and discombobulate both liberals and conservatives, just in different ways.) On Tuesday, I looked at a city that the Global Startup Genome Ecosystem Report 2021 identified as a rising star – Bilbao, Spain. Bilbao stood out because it’s a former industrial city that has reinvented itself as a technopolis (and also isn’t even the major city in its own country, a status that every community in Southwest and Southside Virginia can relate to). Today, I’ll turn my attention to another city that the report singled out for reinventing itself: the Canadian city of Calgary.

Calgary, unlike Bilbao, never saw its legacy industries collapse. But their days might be numbered. Calgary is the Houston of Canada, home to that country’s oil and gas industries – yet, ironically, it’s also becoming a center for renewable energy companies. Startup Genome ranks Calgary as one of the top 10 markets in the world for “clean tech,” the technologies emerging from the renewable energy revolution.

Community leaders from Virginia’s coal country ought to be booking a trip to Calgary: Here’s a place that seems to be successfully making the transition from a fossil fuel economy to a green energy economy. The premier of Alberta, the Canadian version of a governor, is Jason Kenney, who is conservative enough that he could probably be elected governor of Texas if he ever switched his citizenship. In the past, Kenney has proudly defended – nay, championed – his province’s fossil fuel industry, declaring that he wants to keep pumping oil until he sells “the last barrel” in the ground. But last year even Kenney started talking up renewables. “I have a firm grasp of the obvious,” Kenney told the National Post. “There is no reasonable person that can deny that in the decades to come we will see a gradual shift from hydrocarbon-based energy to other forms of energy.” Those more concerned about climate change want to see more than a “gradual shift” away from carbon-based industry, but the point is this: Here’s a fossil fuel cheerleader who is now working to make sure his province is a green energy hub. “I think that the modern developed economy will be using energy sources we haven’t even considered yet,” Kennedy said in his famous turnaround interview.

If any Republicans in the coalfields feel the need for some political cover as they begin to tout green energy, they should invite Kenney down for a tour. They’d get treated to lines like these: “There’s two streams on this, one the utopian notion that you can turn off the modern industrial economy tomorrow, shut down our current energy consumption and run the world on rainbows and unicorn farts.” Of course, he goes on to say that “then there’s the other stream, which is reality, where we continue to have massive consumption of hydrocarbon energy for at least 20 or 30 years, but will be at the same time increasing technology that allows for other forms of energy.”

The line would “rainbows and unicorn farts” is the applause line, and people can argue over what the timeline for the transition to renewables should be, but let’s also recognize some common ground here: One of the world’s most quotable fossil fuel advocates is saying that renewable energy is a real thing.

And while Kenney still very much wants to sell “that last barrel” – and a lot more leading up to it – his province is very much positioning itself for the transition to green energy. We can only speculate how much better off we’d be if the coal-producing communities of Appalachia had come to this same epiphany decades ago. We can’t change the past, though, only the future. Let’s give credit where credit is due: We are now seeing community leaders in Southwest Virginia start to embrace that energy transition and try to figure out how they can make it work in their favor. In September, we saw Republican legislators from the region celebrate the announcement that the Nature Conservancy and Dominion Energy would collaborate on turning 1,200 acres of former coal mines on the Wise-Dickenson county line into a solar farm. We’ve seen them push projects for battery storage (which is key for a lot of renewables) and data centers (which is an indirect way of endorsing renewables, because tech companies want those data centers powered by carbon-free sources of energy).

Still, there’s a lot more work that needs to be done, and just because politicians have what Kenney calls “a firm grasp of the obvious” doesn’t mean everyone else does. (Yes, sometimes people are ahead of the politicians but sometimes it’s the other way around, too.) So let’s look at just how Alberta’s biggest metro is making that transition from an oil-and-gas city to a renewable energy city.

An inconvenient fact for conservatives: A rare left-of-center government in Alberta helped jump-start things.

In 2016, the same year that Appalachian voters were cheering then-candidate Donald Trump for declaring that “we’re going to bring back King Coal,” Canada’s biggest fossil fuel province did just the opposite. That year the Alberta legislature passed the Renewable Electricity Act, which set a target of generating 30% of the province’s power from renewables by 2030. As green energy bills go, that’s pretty weak. Virginia’s Clean Economy Act requires Dominion Energy to be carbon-free by 2045 and Appalachian Power to do the same by 2050.

But look at what happened in Alberta. Just a year later, the province was declared to be “a hot bed of activity for investment in renewable energy.” These days, the Canadian news media is full of headlines about the irony of Alberta in general and Calgary in particular becoming a center for clean tech.

“Renewables are key to Alberta’s energy future.” – Calgary Journal

“Inside Alberta’s wind and solar boom.” – Global News

“Corporate sector sets its sights on Alberta to grow renewable energy partnerships.” – The Globe and Mail.

“Alberta could emerge as Canada’s first hydrogen energy hub.” – The Financial Post.

“Alberta becoming hot spot for massive renewable energy deals.” – 660 City News

Now, it surely helps that Alberta is a windy place and that parts of it are flat, which makes it particularly good for solar farms. The CBC reports that 83% of the wind and solar power in Canada over the next five years will be built in Alberta. So maybe all this would have happened even without Alberta setting a goal of more renewable energy; we’ll never know.

Still, the fact remains that Calgary has become a clean tech hub, and a tech hub in general.

Inconvenient fact for liberals: Calgary (and its rival city to the north, Edmonton) benefit in the global marketplace because they are in a low-tax province. The Global Startup Genome Report notes favorably that Alberta has “the lowest corporate tax rate in Canada, no payroll tax, health care premiums or provincial sales tax.”

Inconvenient fact for conservatives: There are no health care premiums because Canada has a national health care system, something Americans to the right of Bernie Sanders can’t bring themselves to talk about.

Yes, this report is full of inconvenient facts for everyone. Nonetheless, several things seem clear. Calgary is successfully leveraging its background in one form of energy to build a future in another. The CBC quotes the leader of a Calgary-based green energy think tank: “We have a lot of the knowledge that’s needed, and that’s everybody from the construction down through the legal and financing — all those pieces of building big projects. We are seeing increasing interest in people that want to become involved in that industry, and so there is increasing demand for training in things like solar installation and wind technicians.”

And the business community seems very much behind renewable energy. This fall, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce issued what amounts to be a manifesto embracing renewables: “Alberta is uniquely positioned to be a leader in the energy innovation space given the breadth and depth of our expertise in the energy industry.” Of course, the business community generally likes things that make money, and there seems to be a lot of money to be made here. In 2020, Calgary – a metro area of about 1.5 million people, about the size of Richmond – drew $353 million in venture capital investment. Not all that was for clean tech, either. Calgary is apparently raking in so much money that it’s developed a side hustle as a center for “fintech” – financial-related software.

There are certainly tensions in Calgary over all this. Not everyone in the fossil fuel industry is convinced there’s a place for them in the new economy. That’s a problem, and not just in Alberta. It’s clear that the renewable energy sector is going to create a lot of jobs – the fastest-growing job category in the United States is for wind energy technicians. But those jobs aren’t being created in coal country. Calgary is fortunate in that the new energy economy jobs are being created where the old energy economy jobs were. We’re not so lucky, and I don’t see either party rushing to do anything about that. My sense is that Democrats simply don’t care because many of them have lost interest in rural voters and Republicans aren’t wired to intervene in the economy in that way, even if it benefits their constituents. There’s also a more fundamental question of just how the government would direct those jobs to coal country even if it could. Thankfully, there are other groups, such as the InvestSWVA group, that are asking the right questions, one of which is: Why can’t Southwest Virginia be a hub for manufacturing some of the 8,000 parts that go into a wind turbine? They’re going to be made someplace, right? 

Put another way: If Calgary, wedded for generations to oil and gas, can figure out how to turn itself from a fossil fuel capital into a green energy capital, so could we. Right?

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.