Canada and the world face a monumental task over the next few decades: We’ve got to overhaul the electrical grid, while at least doubling the amount of electricity generated.
It’s a challenge, and an opportunity. The challenge is getting carbon emissions out of electricity generation; opportunity is in the fact that the cost of renewable power technology has been plummeting.
Look at Nova Scotia, a province still reliant on coal power. In August, it gave the green light to five new wind projects, which will produce 12 per cent of the province’s power in 2025. The cost of the electricity will be less than Nova Scotians pay today, with annual savings estimated at $120-million.
In the quest to build a cleaner grid, Canada starts close to the finish line. More than 80 per cent of our electricity comes from zero-emission hydro, nuclear and wind. But as sectors of the economy go electric – cars, industry, home heating – the amount of new power needed will be daunting.
Building this kind of infrastructure has never been easy. Consider the Site C hydro megaproject in British Columbia, or Muskrat Falls in Newfoundland and Labrador. They took years to plan, and when work finally started, costs spiralled out of control.
Then there’s the problem of getting permits to build a project, and the transmission lines to deliver its power. This is a struggle in Canada, as well as the United States, where there’s a political debate over loosening the rules. Ending the use of fossil fuels in power generation is possible, but green energy isn’t magic. Replacing a coal plant with wind means getting approval to build what can be big, industrial-scale facilities, with long chains of high-voltage lines to distribute what they produce.
Ottawa’s goal is a net zero electricity grid by 2035. A “clean electricity standard” is in the works. It’s a national framework for matters partly in provincial jurisdictional, like so much climate policy. Ottawa wants a lot more clean power, but the Liberal government has also conceded there may be a continued role for natural gas. The Globe and Mail recently reported next year’s federal budget could include considerable sums to realize the plan.
When it comes to electricity, Canada has long operated like 10 different countries. It leads to situations like Hydro-Québec working for years to sell power to New York, even as neighbouring Ontario is looking at meeting its need for more electricity with new gas plants.
The fact that Canada will soon need far more electricity is an opportunity for innovation and – dare we say it? – nation building. Hydro in B.C. could serve as baseload power, and like a giant battery, for Alberta and Saskatchewan, as the Prairie Provinces deploy widespread solar arrays. Hydro in Quebec could do the same for Ontario, as the latter builds more renewables. There’s potential in the proposed Atlantic Loop transmission plan to carry hydro from Quebec and Labrador to the Maritimes. And there is potential opportunity for new nuclear reactors, most likely in the not-yet-proven but possibly innovative small modular variety.
The International Energy Agency’s estimates suggest that, to get to net zero power, wind and solar will have to play outsized roles. And of new power capacity built worldwide in 2020 and 2021, almost three-quarters was solar or wind. There’s a role for nuclear. Ontario is extending the life of two nuclear plants, Darlington and Bruce, and studying doing the same at Pickering, which was scheduled for closure in the mid-2020s. Reconsideration of nuclear is happening from California to Japan.
Hydro and nuclear projects always come with cost challenges. But if costs can be held down, they are reliable sources of steady baseload power – and complements to the natural limitations of wind and solar. (Try using the sun to power a city at midnight.) There’s also big potential in grid-scale battery storage and, just maybe, far-out ideas like fusion. And if carbon capture can be done cheaply, it could be a game changer for power plants fuelled by gas.
There’s a lot at stake. Electric vehicles, to take one example, will soon be widespread. Those cars may not use gasoline, but they can’t move without a ready supply of electric power.
It’s why Canada has to plan to generate and distribute a lot more electricity – and for the sake of our competitiveness, figure out how to do it at the lowest cost possible.