27 Mar Philippe Dunsky
In this monthly series, the team behind Genus Fossil Free speaks with Canadians at the heart of where finance meets climate action. Know someone we might want to speak with? Suggest them in the comments below or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Philippe Dunsky, President of Dunsky Energy Consulting, has dedicated the past quarter century to helping clients accelerate the clean energy transition. He is passionate about designing public policies and market strategies to improve energy efficiency, grow renewable energy and transition toward clean mobility. His staff of 30 combines analytical and strategic expertise to help clients across North America tackle those complex challenges.
How did you come to found Dunsky Energy Consulting?
I started my career in 1990 in environmental education, where I learned to tell the story of the immense challenge that climate change poses to humanity. And in the process I came to understand that the whole thing boils down largely to energy. So I started working for environmental NGOs on the energy file, and quickly discovered that I was a better analyst than activist: I could crunch the numbers and tell the story they told, but numbers are full of nuance, and activism seemed to require black-and-white statements. I wasn’t comfortable with that.
In 1995, the Government of Quebec appointed me to a commission to rethink the Province’s energy policy. By then I knew the ins and outs of the file extremely well, but the commission helped me learn a different skill: how to work with and appreciate people I disagreed with. I was very proud of the commission’s work, and the policy that ensued.
After the commission, I co-founded a think tank called the Helios Centre for Sustainable Energy Strategies. I led that for eight years, before deciding to venture out on my own. That was in 2004.
How has the energy space changed since you started out?
When I began in this field, the energy sector was still recovering from 1979’s double-whammy in the U.S.: the second oil shock and the Three Mile Island nuclear plant meltdown.
As a result, smart people had developed new ways of thinking about and planning for energy needs, ways that opened a much bigger role to improving energy efficiency. This new approach, called Integrated Resource Planning, basically said that before looking to build a new power plant to meet growing demand, we should look at whether we can improve energy efficiency so we don’t need more power in the first place.
That aligned well with my thinking. At that point, we’d had an awful history of building needless power plants that hurt us both economically and environmentally. So I began working on the demand side of the energy equation: assessing opportunities for utilities to help their customers save energy at a lower cost than building new infrastructure. It was win-win. I’ve been working on that ever since.
Since the early 2000s, the climate change conversation has obviously advanced a lot. It’s no longer a looming threat, but something we’re actively contending with. Has what you’ve seen in your work made you feel hopeful for the future?
I’m a hopeful realist. I try to be inspired by the good stuff that’s happening, and there’s a lot of it – and more people than ever are paying attention to climate change and its effects. I also think that this effort and attention is way late. We’re in an historic race against time, and we stood on the sidelines for a little while, while emissions got way ahead of us. So now we’re trying to catch up.
I never know if it’s two steps forward, one step back, or the reverse. Either way, we’ve got to focus on the positive and on accelerating the pace of change. The moment we lose that focus, we lose the race.
I read on your website that nearly half of the carbon reduction required to keep global temperatures below the global goal, which I assume is below the two degrees goal, can be achieved through energy efficiency. So what are the steps that the average person or company can take to move the needle there?
There are so many things. Take cars for example: some people can opt not to purchase a car; some families can choose to share one car instead of two; still others can buy an electric car instead of a gas one. Each of those choices could make a big difference on their emissions.
At home, if you live in a province with a lot of renewable electricity – like BC, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec or Newfoundland – you could switch to heating your home with electric heat pumps, rather than oil or gas. So that would be a huge win. If this isn’t an option (and even if it is), you could insulate and weatherize your home, which has the dual benefit of reducing your bills while at the same time, providing comfort.
What about on the industrial side?
Industries and businesses face similar options, just on a larger scale. They can use procurement rules to focus attention on adopting more energy efficient heating, cooling and lighting solutions. Industrial processes can also be retooled to be far more efficient, and in many cases, switched to electricity. Canada lags far behind in energy productivity – we produce less than the US, Europe and Japan, in terms of our industrial output for every ounce of energy put into the system. So we need to get much, much better at that.
What are some of the biggest wins you’ve realized in energy efficiency over the years?
A lot of the work that we do is designing either policies or programs to advance energy efficiency and renewables, and we’ve made great progress there. Recently we designed a solar incentive program in Alberta, and I’m very proud of how that’s accelerating solar adoption there. We worked with BC Hydro and FortisBC to help more customers there – including low-income households – weatherize their homes. We supported Efficiency Nova Scotia on a number of energy saving initiatives, including helping their industries implement energy management systems. We helped NB Power build a whole suite of programs to help businesses, industry and households save energy there. The same is true in every province, and more than a dozen U.S. states.
One of the things we’re working more on these days – and that really excites me, personally – is electric mobility. Vehicles are extraordinarily inefficient and a major cause of both climate change and local air pollution. So I’m proud that we’re working with cities, provinces and utilities across Canada to accelerate adoption of EVs. That’s essential if we’re to win this race.
What are some of the things on the horizon or new technologies being developed that excite you?
Lots! Battery technology – the basis of electric vehicles but also a key to enabling solar – is progressing very quickly. And I’m very inspired by what’s happening with solar and wind power, and the extraordinary cost declines we’re seeing. Solar is now competitive with traditional sources in many places across North America. That was unthinkable a decade ago. The same is true for wind power. It’s incredible to think that wind and solar – once a hippie’s dream – now command over $300B US in annual capital investment. And that when you add energy efficiency investments to the mix, the numbers rise to nearly $600B US per year. I have clients who are shocked by the numbers we’re seeing these days. It’s making them question the likelihood of ever building another conventional power plant again.
Another big one is heat pumps. Let’s face it, there’s nothing sexy about heat pumps. Solar, we all know what it looks like and we can get excited by it; wind turbines are beautiful to look at. Heat pumps, it’s just a box. But they’re amazing because they can heat and cool our homes from the latent heat in the air. That’s this weird physics thing that no one needs to understand, but the point is, I heat my home with a heat pump, and because of that, it takes me 80% less energy than I would need otherwise. Heat pumps are to heating what electric vehicles are to mobility: serious disrupters.
And I haven’t even talked about the use of data to accelerate all of these things by making it far, far easier to save energy, use renewables and drive an EV. Data is the glue that will hold this all together in the future.
What in the industry keeps you up at night?
Speed of change. Every year we improve. Every year in Canada, for example, we improve our energy efficiency by one per cent, so every decade we get 10 per cent more efficient. That’s just not fast enough. What keeps me up at night is thinking about how we can double or triple our rate of improvement. We need to get to 2 per cent or 3 per cent annually if we’re to really get at waste and meet our carbon commitments.
What’s your climate action superpower?
I’ve got two. First, my team! I’ve got a brilliant team of 30 people who work to accelerate the clean energy transition every day of the week. They impress me to no end. And second, our clients. They can get a bad rap, but I have the privilege of working with utility executives and government leaders who are deeply committed to making our energy systems leaner and greener for future generations.