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Manitoba Hydro power lines outside Winnipeg on May 1, 2018.JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

Manitoba’s demand for power could more than double over the next 20 years – and it will need new sources within a decade.

That’s the conclusion of Manitoba Hydro’s Integrated Resource Plan, which was released Wednesday. It’s the product of two years of effort, which included probing customers about their intentions to adopt electric vehicles and heat pumps, and surveying government-driven policy initiatives.

The prediction places Manitoba Hydro among the earliest Canadian utilities to formally signal expectations that mass electrification will lead to surging electricity demand. It’s noteworthy in an industry where major generation and transmission projects can take many years, even decades, to plan, acquire permits and construct. Officially, many utilities continue to assume demand will evolve in a manner more consistent with historical experience.

As calls grow for a doubling or tripling of Canada’s electricity generation capacity, some utilities have other ideas

“This is a significant move for Manitoba,” said Kate Harland, acting research director for mitigation with the Canadian Climate Institute. She noted that British Columbia came to similar conclusions in June. “These are already strong clean energy provinces, and they’re looking to maintain that competitive lead and looking at ways to expand their system.”

Jay Grewal, Manitoba Hydro’s president and CEO, said the utility has not made any “decisive” decisions on how to meet that swift demand spike. But over the next five years, it will increase its promotion of energy efficiency to help customers reduce consumption. It also plans to reduce the amount of electricity it exports to neighbours in Western Canada and the northern United States under long-term contracts.

“Some of those [contracts] start to roll off in 2025 and 2026, so that will also be adding to the electricity available within the province,” Ms. Grewal said.

This seemingly marks a departure for the utility, which has long emphasized that export revenues help keep electricity rates low for Manitobans. In its most recent annual financial statements (for 2021-22) Manitoba Hydro reported nearly $500-million in export revenues, roughly one-fifth of the total. As recently as 2021, Manitoba Hydro completed construction of a transmission line from western Manitoba into Saskatchewan to fulfill a 20-year contract with SaskPower, Saskatchewan’s electrical utility.

Manitoba Hydro generates nearly all electricity consumed in the province through its fleet of 16 hydroelectric dams. But Ms. Grewal said the province is not looking to build more of them.

“That is not the most cost-effective potential energy choice,” she said. “We’ll be looking at wind backstopped by dispatchable natural gas that will only be used strategically and intermittently. Because when you combine the two, they can reduce the [greenhouse-gas] emissions in the province.”

According to the Canada Energy Regulator, in 2019 wind energy accounted for just 4 per cent of the province’s electricity generation capacity. “We’ll be going to the market for power purchase agreements,” Ms. Grewal said. “We will be leveraging independent power producers as a way to be able to scale up as quickly as we need to.”

Mark Winfield, a professor at York University who studies sustainable energy, said utilities should think twice before building large new generation facilities, because it’s “unclear how this will really play out.” For example, it’s uncertain how much electricity distributed energy resources (which include a variety of technologies, from roof-mounted solar panels to vehicle chargers that feed electricity back to the grid) might provide.

These “imply the need for some caution on committing to large, centralized generating assets with very long lead times and lifetimes, for which demand may or may not actually materialize decades out into the future.”

The federal government’s Clean Electricity Regulations aim to achieve a net-zero electricity grid (essentially one where all greenhouse-gas emissions released are counterbalanced by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) by 2035. Manitoba Hydro is almost there now: 97 per cent of its current generation mix is emissions-free. Nonetheless, Ms. Grewal said her utility regards the federal objective as not feasible, and instead plans to reach net zero by 2050.

“It’s not feasible to get to net zero by 2035, both in terms of what needs to be built, but secondly the cost,” she said.

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