At suppertime on Jan. 3, during a cold snap, British Columbians broke the province’s record for hourly electricity use. Six months later, the record for summertime electricity demand was shattered in a heat wave, as BC Hydro’s customers turned up their fans and air conditioners.
Those records are bound to be broken, over and over, in the next 12 years. British Columbians will be making dramatic changes at home and in the workplace as the province shifts toward electrification to meet its 2030 target to reduce carbon released into the atmosphere by 40 per cent from 2007 levels.
Today, fossil fuels supply two-thirds of the province’s energy needs, according to Clean Energy BC, an association that promotes renewable power. The provincial government has approved new fossil-fuel production – a massive liquefied natural gas plant in Kitimat – but says the target can still be reached by converting most everything else to clean, renewable electricity.
But many British Columbians opt to heat their homes and businesses with fossil fuels, because electric heating typically costs 50 per cent more.
In early December, the province will release a climate plan to show how it intends to reach the 2030 target. B.C.'s carbon tax will rise, but so too will the cost of electricity. Efficiency and conservation have to be part of the solution.
In a media briefing, senior government officials who are not authorized to be quoted outlined some of the changes. Others, including Clean Energy BC, have also offered their vision.
This is the picture that is emerging:
Homeowners will replace their gas furnaces with electric-power heat pumps, which currently cost $4,000-$6,000. Commuters will trade gas-fuelled vehicles for zero-emission cars. Energy-efficient retrofits of older homes will be in demand, while new homes will need to have the lowest-possible carbon footprint. Consumers will ditch inefficient appliances and light bulbs. Homes will be connected to smart devices that choose the best time of day to run the dishwasher, and turn off lights the kids left on. Ideally, they will actually return energy to the grid with micro-power systems and battery storage. Industry and institutions will have to do the same.
The massive Site C hydroelectric dam, expected to be ready in 2024, will not come close to supplying the electricity for this low-carbon future. And capacity to provide more energy is not the only issue. Transmission and distribution systems will have to be upgraded to carry the increased load from the point of generation to communities.
Jae Mather, executive director of Clean Energy BC, calculates the province will require about 50 per cent more electricity production than it has now to meet demand in 2030. Site C will provide about 10 per cent of that. With the cost of renewable energy dropping, smaller projects, especially wind power, will likely do the rest. The additional infrastructure needed will drive up energy costs, and that should help consumers embrace conservation.
“Here in British Columbia, our advantage is that our electricity is so green," Mr. Mather said, referring to the fact that most of B.C.'s power is not produced with fossil fuels. "Our disadvantage, ironically, is very cheap electricity [relative to other jurisdictions] that makes energy efficiency more complex.”
The province estimates that, under current prices, switching from natural gas to a heat pump would save 5 per cent to 10 per cent on heating costs in an average home. The government has launched a program called “EfficiencyBC” that offers rebates and coaching on upgrades, but the upfront costs for homeowners could be significant.
But all of those calculations are likely to be out the door five or 10 years from now: The cost of fossil fuels will rise as the price on carbon grows, but the cost of electricity will increase as well, as BC Hydro, the province’s prime distributor of electricity, upgrades its systems to deliver the growing load.
That presents a political challenge for the NDP government, which campaigned in 2017 on a promise to freeze hydro rates. The independent energy regulator rejected the notion, saying it would put the Crown corporation’s financial plan at risk. Even without the additional demands of a new climate-action plan, the Crown’s finances are, in the words of the Minister of Energy, a mess.
In spite of the promise, rising energy costs are inevitable, Mr. Mather notes.
At home and on the road
In the Heiltsuk community in Bella Bella, massive white storage tanks dominate the harbour, a constant reminder of the nation’s reliance on diesel fuel. But a pilot project to replace home heating systems that use diesel – and in some cases wood stoves – with electric heat pumps offers a glimpse of the future.
“We did it to save on fuel costs, and to reduce the amount of fuel transported on the water,” said Jaimie Harris, a Heiltsuk Nation councillor. “We’ve had nothing but good feedback. People are seeing their monthly energy bills go down." Air quality is better, too. Each heat pump that replaces a diesel furnace eliminates about five tonnes of carbon emissions annually. The changeover is also producing local jobs.
The project cost for the first 21 homes was about $10,000 each, said Graham Anderson, project manager for Ecotrust Canada, the non-profit organization that is helping with the project. Ecotrust wants to replicate this in every detached home on a reserve in the province – an estimated 14,000 houses – which would provide long-term savings and a cleaner environment. But it has not yet secured funding.
Mr. Mather said the potential to reduce emissions in the built environment is huge: In 2015, buildings produced about 17 per cent of the province’s greenhouse gas emissions.
He said federal help will be needed to make it feasible to retrofit existing homes to replace fossil-fuel heating and reduce energy requirements with more efficient windows, insulation and appliances.
“We need to create … a low-interest, green mortgage service driven by the government of Canada to facilitate to the behaviour we want."
What British Columbians do on the road will also make a major shift.
In 2017, transportation accounted for almost 40 per cent of British Columbia’s greenhouse gas emissions – the lion’s share from commercial transport. Even if zero-emission transport trucks are widely available by 2030, it is unlikely the turnover of freight vehicles will be fast enough to yield significant carbon reductions in the next 12 years. The payoff will come as B.C. approaches its 2040 and 2050 targets.
More promising in the short term is personal transportation. Apartment buildings could offer vehicles that residents can sign out as needed. The B.C. government officials who offered the briefing said electric or hydrogen-fuelled cars are expected to cost the same as gas-fuelled vehicles as early as 2022. And infrastructure to support more zero-emission cars will grow – the federal government has committed more than $180-million for the purpose.
Karen Tam Wu, the Pembina Institute’s managing director for B.C., said what is lacking today is a clear agenda for climate action in the province’s energy sector.
She noted that BC Hydro does not have a directive to define its role in meeting the climate targets.
“That’s the crux of the conversation. B.C. needs a plan to determine how much electricity we need, but our utilities have never been mandated to plan for a low carbon future.”
Mark Jaccard, professor of sustainable energy in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University, predicts the transition will be less disruptive than expected. In fact, he suggests the 2030 targets really call for “zero lifestyle changes.”
More British Columbians will choose electricity for heat and their next vehicle. He believes it is no more radical than earlier efforts to reduce mercury, lead and other toxins in the environment.
“These are achieved with simple policies that we already have or are implementing now," he said. They include standards for low-carbon fuel, clean electricity and “net-zero-carbon” buildings.
“Lifestyle change is the favourite line of the fossil-fuel industry. Makes everything sound difficult, when the solution is to do a bit more of what we are already doing.”