Energy producers and environmentalists alike are welcoming a new renewable energy network comprised of four different technology sectors.

Canada's solar, geothermal, hydro and wind-energy producers have formed the Renewable Energy Industry Network (REIN) in the hope that bigger is louder when it comes to dealing with the federal government.

REIN is designed to give alternative energy producers a voice in how Ottawa spends $1.5 billion as part of its new federal-provincial Canadian Eco-Trust, which is designed to promote clean-air initiatives and offset climate change.

The more people talking about Canada's energy costs and challenges the better, says Pierre Alvarez, president of the Calgary-based Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).

"How they handle their own strategic choice is up to them," says Alvarez. "But we certainly don't view it as a threat in any way. Nor are we concerned."

The network's four backers - the Ottawa-based Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA), Canadian GeoExchange, Canadian Hydropower Association and the Montreal-based Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) - plan to lobby together as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government consults industry on its regulatory framework for air emissions.

REIN wants to make sure renewable energy producers receive financial support through a proposed clean technology fund and are allowed to participate in a future emissions-trading system.

Canada is going to need all the energy it can produce in the next little while, whether it comes from renewable or non-renewable sources, says Alvarez.

"We have always been very clear that we welcome renewables," says Alvarez. "We are one of the biggest investors in the renewable industry in the country. If you look at the use of solar panels, we're one of the biggest users. We are (among) the biggest investors in tidal power right now with EnCana (which funds a test facility at Race Rocks near Victoria). We've got enormous investment in those industries."

However, he says Ottawa must ensure that it does not put up artificial barriers to investment that favour one specific sector over another.

"As far as the Eco-Trust goes, that's only one of a whole bunch of other (funding) mechanisms that are out there," says Alvarez. "Our focus has been on the technology funds and how those are going to be collected and deployed - because we think that's a tremendous way of moving forward, especially on the climate change front."

Ian Bruce, a climate change specialist with the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation, which views renewable energy as a key solution in addressing global warming, says it's good for industry to be educating people about new technologies, building consumer confidence and putting product standards in place.

But he's concerned that the network includes large hydro, which has "significant environmental impacts."

Bruce says the renewables sector has a very strong case for taking early action on global warming. He points to a recent C.D. Howe Institute report that says the federal government's climate change plan will actually lead to an increase in Canadian greenhouse-gas emissions.

"There's definitely some advantages of having more collaboration among low-impact renewable energy technologies and the sectors," says Bruce. "But, right now, in Canada, the real problem is that renewable energy technologies are competing with polluting energy sources and our economic system rewards the wrong behaviour. In this case, it's polluting activities."

Saying that Canada risks falling behind other nations in this "clean energy technology boom," he says Ottawa needs to collaborate much more and introduce a system that shifts responsibility for pollution onto the polluter.

"The big problem right now is that it's not a level playing field," says Bruce. "These new clean energy technologies have significant, long-term environmental and economic advantages. Coal-fired power plants, for example, currently can pollute for free into the atmosphere. The atmosphere right now is acting as a free dumping ground for harmful emissions."

Elizabeth McDonald, CanSIA's executive director, says REIN wants Ottawa to consult with it the way it does with oil and gas producers.

"We're saying, 'We're the future, and you need to talk to us and invest in us, and make incentives for Canadians to adopt us,' " she says.

Despite their different technologies, the four sectors have much in common when it comes to negotiating with Ottawa, McDonald says.

REIN alternative sources now provide 17 per cent of Canada's overall energy supply and 60 per cent of its electricity needs. But those figures could be much greater once emerging technologies become more advanced.

The underlying message surrounding REIN's launch is that renewables are being under-utilized. CanSIA estimates the solar industry now employs 1,000 people but has the potential to expand its workforce to 60,000 by 2025.

Out of 20 reporting International Energy Agency countries, Canada now ranks 14th in the use of photovoltaic systems, which are the most widely deployed solar devices.

The Canadian GeoExchange Coalition, which certifies geothermal heating and air conditioning systems and installers, has estimated its sector accounts for less than one per cent of Canadian heating and cooling systems. But geothermal has expanded by 44 per cent in each of the past two years.

The hydropower association has more than 40 corporate members within an industry that consists of just 50 businesses, a quarter of which are large public utilities.

The association estimates Canada has the potential to double the 70,858 megawatts (MW) of hydroelectricity now produced.

Canada's wind-energy capacity more than doubled in 2006 to 1,460 MW - enough to provide power for 440,000 homes - after a record 772 MW, valued at $1.5 billion, was installed last year.

Provincial targets call for 10,000 MW of wind power to be available by 2015, but producers claim that goal falls far short of the potential resource capacity.

Michael Carten, president and CEO of Calgary-based Sustainable Energy Technologies Ltd., which provides solar systems, says REIN should focus on the provinces instead of Ottawa.

"My main concern with the industry lobbies and industry associations is that they focus too much on Ottawa," says Carten, who served as CanSIA's chairman last year. "I know Ottawa has the Eco-Trust, and that's one thing, but the regulatory environment is going to come out of the provinces (through provincial utilities)."

Carten's company only serves customers in Europe because he says "Canada is just not in the game.”

He says European governments offer renewable energy producers higher prices for larger projects and have created regulations that require utilities to pay premium prices for solar electricity that is linked to power grids.

Donald McInnes, president and CEO of Vancouver-based Plutonic Power Corp., which develops small-scale run-of-river hydro projects, says a co-ordinated approach on reforming regulatory areas "makes a lot of sense.”

But he opposes the idea of REIN lobbying for government funds.

"Speaking as a business person, companies need to stand on their own two feet," says McInnes. "To lobby the Eco-energy (Trust) program for more subsidies wouldn't be my main objective in creating a national group."

He says REIN should focus on improving the regulatory environment, including such matters as permitting regimes and inter-connection with provincial power grids, because many renewable projects are proposed for remote locations.

While B.C. and other provinces have ruled out building new conventional coal, nuclear and natural gas facilities, and new technologies such as carbon sequestration are in development, renewable energy developers still face several regulatory delays, he notes.

He contends the success of renewables depend on their location and alternative sources are just the "complement" and not the only solution as Canada attempts to meet its energy needs.

"You want to keep your lights on at home and you want power all the time," says McInnes. "Renewables can't do that."

(Monte Stewart can be reached at monte@businessedge.ca)