When it comes to electricity systems, Canada is not much more than a collection of fiefdoms sitting side-by-side. Every province and territory is incredibly different, and mostly disconnected from the others.
That means a federal plan to cut most fossil fuels out of Canadian power grids is business-as-usual for some, and an incredibly steep hill to climb for others. And it’s part of why conservative governments in Alberta and Saskatchewan are fighting Ottawa on yet another energy front.
The federal government wants to green the country’s power generation to meet Canada’s climate goals. Ottawa’s commitment to country wide net-zero electricity by 2035 means a much-diminished role for natural gas-fired power – unless emissions are captured and stored underground – in the space of a dozen years.
Ottawa often touts that Canada’s grid is already near 85 per cent non-emitting. But that figure belies the patchwork of systems across the country.
“There is no uniform Canadian energy reality,” says a thoughtful report this week on electricity from the Public Policy Forum (PPF) think tank. “Five provinces have developed hydro potential, with four of them exporting into U.S. markets. Two provinces have embraced nuclear power while two have formally banned it. Four provinces still burn at least some coal, with Alberta about to join Ontario as an off-coal jurisdiction.”
Alberta now relies on natural gas for nearly three quarters of its power, with the province also contributing to most of Canada’s total wind and solar growth last year. Saskatchewan uses a mix of natural gas and coal, with some hydroelectricity.
On the other hand, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Manitoba, British Columbia, and the Yukon get almost all their power from hydro. They’re essentially already at Ottawa’s 2035 goal.
However, not only do Canadian grids have to be carbon neutral by 2035, but supply will have to grow two to three times what it is today by 2050, as overall energy demands increase. The PPF report thesis is that electrification will have to be the No. 1 national project of the 21st century, dwarfing endeavours such as construction of the Canadian Pacific railway, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Trans-Canada Highway.
The scale of the building to be done is staggering: “Imagine every dam, turbine, nuclear plant and solar panel across Canada – and then picture a couple more next to them,” the report says. “Canada’s national landscape is currently dotted by more than 100 power plants of at least 250 MW, each big enough to supply a city of 180,000. Soon we will need 220-340 of them.”
And don’t expect sharing between provinces to be a straightforward solution, either: “A plethora of battles over the years about the ability to transit one province’s energy through another – Churchill Falls, Energy East, Northern Gateway – has fed hesitancy around electricity burden-sharing.”
In this vein, electricity was a key topic in a meeting Wednesday between Steven Guilbeault and Minister Rebecca Schulz, the federal and Alberta environment ministers.
“Net-zero by 2035 on our electricity grid is just not doable,” Ms. Schulz said in an interview after the meeting, who added that her government reiterated its ask for flexibility, or a “carve-out” for provinces such as Alberta. The province is aiming for a carbon-neutral power grid and oil and gas sector by 2050, which is later and less defined than federal goals.
Ottawa has signed onto Alberta’s idea for a bilateral working group, and signalled some flexibility in its rules. But draft Clean Energy Regulations are expected from the federal government in a matter of weeks, setting up another potential Alberta-Ottawa confrontation.
It’s politically problematic – some would say a strain on national unity – because the federal rules on electricity will hit particularly hard in Alberta and Saskatchewan. This is unlike a carbon price, which is supposed to be applied somewhat evenly across the country.
Natural gas production is also a mainstay, entrenched industry in Alberta. There are high hopes that more can be exported from here and B.C., to a world still looking for liquefied natural gas, or LNG. The European Union Parliament last year declared, with controversy, that nuclear power and natural gas can be labelled as green for investment purposes, alongside wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.
This isn’t to say that things won’t change or don’t need change, as Canadian forests burn at record levels and temperatures around the world soar. Things can also happen more quickly than we think. In 2015, Alberta relied on coal for 55 per cent of its electricity production. There were major doubters when the Alberta NDP government of the day expedited a move off coal.
Now the last coal-fired power in Alberta will be phased out at the end of this year, way ahead of schedule. That’s good news because, broadly speaking, natural-gas electricity generation produces half the carbon emissions of coal. The Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank, said in a report last month that the province could decarbonize its electricity grid in an affordable and reliable manner.
But the UCP has been quick to point to the cost estimates, with some saying that decarbonizing all of Canada’s electricity, and expanding it, will cost somewhere north of $1-trillion. And reliability will be of increasing concern.
No matter the province, Canadians are not prepared for the shock of moving from a world of electricity abundance to scarcity, the PPF report emphasizes: “The first point to note is the range of estimates. We seem to know very little about the costs of this national project. The second is their enormity either way.”
This is a country where major projects often stretch years longer than scheduled, where cross-provincial co-operation is the exception rather than the rule, and where we can’t even build enough houses and apartments for everyone.
There are good reasons to reduce Canada’s emissions from electricity. But we need to be clear on the challenge ahead. The biggest building project of the 21st century will be massive and will once again lay bare the differences and divisions in our country.