A conversation with Clean Energy Canada executive director Merran Smith

The founder and executive director of Clean Energy Canada discusses her role in the landmark Great Bear Rainforest agreement–and her concerns about the B.C. government’s energy priorities

Merran Smith was the lead “environmental architect” of the landmark Great Bear Rainforest conservation agreement, first legislated in 2006, which helped ensure the protection of thousands of square kilometres of coastal ecosystem stretching from the top of Vancouver Island to the Alaska Panhandle. In 2008 she turned to climate change, founding Clean Energy Canada, which conducts research and advocates for government policy to encourage investment in renewable energy. Smith was a member of Premier Christy Clark’s Climate Leadership Team, which included representatives from business, First Nations, academia and politicians. Now she’s waiting to see whether the team’s ambitious set of 32 recommendations, presented to the premier last fall, will be adopted.

While studying biology at UVic, you came to live on a boat. Why was that?
It was a cheap way to live. It was a boat from the ’40s with a mahogany cabin—and once I started doing it, I loved it. You’re always in tune with the tide, the moon, and there’s otters and all kinds of sea life that you’re in touch with so it was a fantastic lifestyle. I lived on it for 11 years.

As an environmentalist, you worked for 11 years with forestry companies and First Nations toward reaching a landmark agreement, first legislated in 2006, to protect the Great Bear Rainforest. What did you learn from that experience?
We were in this intense conflict with the forestry companies and workers and communities that were going to be impacted, and we had to listen to them. We were coming at it from the science and environmental side, but the answers were economic. We needed retraining dollars for workers, and we needed economic development dollars for First Nations so that they could create businesses and employ their communities. What I really learned in the Great Bear was, you need a vision where businesses and communities can see that they too can be successful, and a roadmap of how to get there.

You were part of the delegation that went to Paris last November with Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Clark. What was that like?
Paris was fantastic in that there really was a broad cross section of countries, municipalities and corporations, really calling for governments to take action. I spent a fair amount of time in sessions with the business community, and I was just astounded at the level of commitment to the transition to clean energy. Senior leadership from places like Ikea, Walmart, Levi’s, Google, Facebook, Apple—all speaking for the business case for transitioning to renewables. This is no longer fringe; this is mainstream.

You were part of Premier Clark’s Climate Leadership Team set up in May 2015, which recommended measures that would allow the province to meet its legislated emissions targets. Can B.C. have LNG and still meet these targets?
The CLT modelled that we could have a modest amount of LNG—one medium-sized plant and a couple of small ones—and still meet our 2050 targets. The truth about LNG is that it’s not clear that it’s going to take off for B.C. The price of gas is down, there’s a glut of gas on the market, and other countries are ahead of us. Now a report [by the Washington D.C.-based Brattle Group] came out recently that shows how renewables, wind and solar energy, have dropped significantly in cost over the last five years and are now competitive with natural gas in several Asian countries, which are our target markets. So I would encourage the government, for prosperity, not to put its eggs in the natural gas bucket.

Does that mean you are, in Premier Clark’s words, one of the “forces of no?”
I think I’m a force of realism. The fact is that renewables have become competitive with gas over the last five years. B.C. needs to pay attention to this information because we ignore it at our peril.

Is this related to what you learned in the Great Bear Rainforest—that economics is actually the answer to environmental problems?
Yeah. If you look at the clean tech sector, it’s already a piece of British Columbia’s economy. It already employs 68,000 people, it added 8,000 new jobs between 2010 and 2014—and it can grow.

Hydroelectric power is considered clean energy. What’s your feeling about Site C?
I would like the economics to be redone, because I think we are likely making a bad financial decision. The price of renewables is only going down—whereas eight out of the last 10 large hydro projects that were built around the world came out almost twice what the predicted budget was.

Is there any fossil fuel that you wish you could eliminate from your life?
Last month I bought an electric vehicle. It’s been really helpful to understand the anxiety when you need to get to a charging station, but it really isn’t an obstacle. It just requires a little bit of change and you can make it work.