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The Front Line of Energy: Colleen Giroux-Schmidt, Innergex

Colleen Giroux-Schmidt of Innergex

We’re checking in with Global Learning Forum alumni to in a series called “The Front Line of Energy” to find out what’s shifted in their work over the past year and to hear their thoughts on the future of energy.

Colleen Giroux-Schmidt is working to build the renewable energy projects that will help to decarbonize economies around the world. She is a Senior Director at Innergex, a leading Canadian renewable energy company that develops, owns, and operates dozens of run-of-river hydroelectric, wind, and solar photovoltaic installations in Canada and internationally.

At our Global Learning Forum she led the session, More than electrons: Designing small hydro projects to benefit First Nations, recreational users, and the local environment.

What’s happened in your work over the last year?

“On the macro level, the new [Canadian] federal government has changed the conversation. The Paris Agreement and the UN climate conference at COP21 have been game changers. Now the focus will be on decarbonizing the economy and the timescale that we can achieve it on. On greenhouse gas emissions reductions, the different provinces are trying to hit their individual goals, which opens up the potential national arena for climate change [solutions].

Over the last year, Innergex has been busy building what is already in the hopper in British Columbia. We’re also looking at expanding renewable energy (RE) projects both within Canada and in Latin America. We just signed a memorandum of understanding with Mexico’s state utility. Last month we closed an acquisition for eight wind power projects in France.

In the Prairies, there is a lot of activity in wind and solar in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Province of Saskatchewan [which just legislated a 50% renewable electricity portfolio standard] will be making further announcements later this year, and Alberta is currently working through how they will meet their RE aspirations. The Province of Ontario just announced in April that they will be procuring another 600 MW of wind power. Quebec has also been busy with recent major energy policy announcements.

What’s been really exciting for me is continuing our work with First Nations towards helping their social and economic reality. Most of our projects have First Nations involvement: In Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia we have projects that are 50% owned by First Nations peoples.

While hydropower has been the mainstay of Innergex’s portfolio, we’re increasingly adding wind power. We’re continuing to see huge cost reductions in wind and solar and they’re even hitting grid parity now. Increasingly, over the past year, we’ve been exploring storage and having a lot of conversations about batteries and pumped storage.”

Kanaka Bar Indian Band - Innergex project

The Kwoiek Creek Hydroelectric Project is a 50/50 partnership between Innergex and the Kanaka Bar Indian Band.

What have been some of the biggest developments and trends in renewable energy over this past year?

“The [November 2015] federal election in Canada. Now we have a Ministry of Environment AND Climate Change, whereas before we didn’t even talk about climate change. Clean energy is now in the mandate letters that ministers have received from the government.

The Paris climate has also changed the landscape: we saw different countries come together, including corporations and cities. Across the board we’re seeing [consensus on climate change].

And Elon Musk, whatever he’s up to! He’s shown that the transition can be cool and you see this being reinforced by companies: IKEA, Apple, and Walmart are all taking action because consumers are demanding it.”

What are the next big issues to watch?

“In cities, how we move around is a big one. We could really move the dial if we marry a few concepts together: walking, transit, electric vehicles and car sharing. The new federal government has an opportunity to invest in more sustainable infrastructure [in Canada’s cities]. On that note, there are new trends in green buildings and in solar photovoltaic films that could provide for local generation. Increasingly, schools are also doing solar—these are great teaching and learning opportunities. There are also a lot of things happening in small municipalities, and of course I have to say the City of Vancouver’s Renewable City Strategy!

As the cost of renewables comes down, we’re seeing changes in the predominant form of new energy build outs. We’re seeing improved efficiencies in [newer] renewable energy technology that are changing the cost structure. Whereas hydropower still has plenty of labour, concrete, and transmission costs, the technology efficiencies being gained in wind and solar energy are causing the prices to come down; for example, a recent procurement process in Mexico saw solar projects come in cheaper than wind.

With the improvement in RE efficiency, 10 years ago you might not have done a project. Now you can do a wind development that generates the same amount of energy, but with half the turbines. This is good for the world, as it means the potential to power society with renewable energy is even greater.”

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Hydro project image courtesy of Flickr user bcgovphotos