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An electric vehicle at a charge station in Ottawa on July 13, 2022. We could need nearly triple the amount of power we're using now by 2050, but it is possible for all that energy to come from renewable sources, including wind and solar.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Does anyone know how much power we’ll need to generate as more people switch to driving electric vehicles? Even more importantly, will that electricity be zero emissions – not produced with coal or natural gas?

Robin, Calgary

As we switch to electricity to run our vehicles and heat our homes, we could need nearly triple the amount of power we’re using now by 2050, an energy expert said.

But it’s possible for all that energy to come from renewable sources, including wind, solar and hydroelectricity.

“We’ll need 2.8 times the electricity we’re using today by 2050, but it’s a little less dramatic for 2035 – it will be about 1.6 times what we’re using today,” Stephen Thomas, clean energy manager for the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF), a Vancouver-based environmental not-for-profit, said last year. “It’s not just from these new electric vehicles – moving [from natural gas] to high-efficiency electric heat pumps in buildings is also happening at the same time.”

Last year, a DSF report showed that Canada could completely rely on zero-emissions electricity by 2035 using technology that exists now – even as our energy needs grow.

“We don’t need to wait for some sort of breakthrough,” Thomas said.

According to the Canada Energy Regulator, several provinces, including British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec, typically generate more than 80 per cent of their electricity from hydroelectricity.

Ontario uses a combination of nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, biomass and natural gas.

But Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia generate most of their electricity from fossil fuels, including natural gas and coal.

“[Over all], Canada is starting from a good place; we have some of the cleanest electricity in the world,” Thomas said.

How do wind and solar stack up?

According to a report last month from Clean Energy Canada, an energy-based think tank at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., using wind to generate power is now cheaper than using natural gas – and is set to be 40 per cent cheaper by 2030.

Even including the cost of batteries to store wind and solar power, both technologies are cost-competitive now with fossil fuels, according to the Clean Energy Canada report.

“Wind and solar are the cheapest sources of electricity in history,” Thomas said.

So, how do we get cleaner power across the country?

The federal government has proposed clean electricity regulations that would move Canada to zero-emissions electricity by 2035 – the same year that all new vehicles sold would have to be battery-electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles or plug-in-hybrids.

Those regulations are expected some time this year.

But the fossil fuels industry is pushing for amendments to the proposed regulations, including carbon credits and carbon capture, that would mean that natural gas power could continue, Thomas said.

“Because we haven’t yet formally committed to these regulations … it’s fair to say almost no province is trying to meet a target like this,” Thomas said. “We need good strong federal regulations that send a clear message for meeting the 2035 target.”

With electricity use expected to nearly double by 2035 and then triple by 2050, it will take a huge investment to make sure that power is green.

“The kind of transformation we’re looking at now has never happened before,” Thomas said. “It’s an unprecedented amount of growth in the electricity sector and in clean electricity.

But right now, even if you live in a province with power where most of the electricity comes from fossil fuels, it is still a good idea to switch to an EV to help reduce CO2 levels, Thomas said.

“It makes sense everywhere in Canada to switch to EVs right now, even with a dirtier electricity grid,” Thomas said. “That’s because EVs are so much more efficient than [gas-powered cars] – they use a quarter of the overall energy.”

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