Skip to main content

Transmission lines that run from the Bruce nuclear power plant are pictured north of Hanover, Ont.

Colin Perkel/THE CANADIAN PRESS

British Columbia's Site C hydro dam, Ontario's Bruce nuclear plant and New England's Northern Pass transmission line all share a common enemy – environmentalists.

As the world grapples with climate change, it's unfortunate that some of the most obvious and available alternatives to fossil fuels remain pariahs to some.

Nuclear power plants and hydro can't continue to be the bad boys of the green movement if the world stands a chance of meeting new greenhouse gas emission goals, reached over the weekend at the Paris climate change summit. The only hope is to exploit the full range of cleaner energy alternatives.

Story continues below advertisement

And for Canada, that means relying increasingly on abundant hydro and nuclear power.

One of this country's great strengths is its balanced energy portfolio, giving it the flexibility to phase out the dirtiest forms of power, at least in the medium-term.

Canada generates roughly 65 per cent of its electricity from renewables, mainly hydro plus a bit of solar. Another 15 per cent of electricity is produced from nuclear, which, while not strictly renewable, has the benefit of being emission free. In Ontario, the closing of coal-fired plants has boosted nuclear's share of the electricity mix to 62 per cent.

The main outliers are Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, which still generate a sizable share of their electricity from coal.

And that should be the focus of Canada's climate-change efforts, at least when it comes to cleaning up the power grid.

Instead, efforts to overhaul nuclear plants in Ontario, develop new hydro resources in British Columbia and export Quebec hydro to the United States are encountering stiff opposition from many of the same groups that want aggressive action on global climate change.

The paradox is a head-scratcher.

Story continues below advertisement

Greenpeace Canada, for example, has waged a long campaign against privately owned Bruce Power's upgrades of Candu reactors at the Bruce nuclear site on Lake Huron. Bruce is Canada's largest nuclear plant, providing more than 35 per cent of Ontario's electricity. Without it, the province would have been hard-pressed to wean itself off coal.

Similarly in British Columbia, the Sierra Club of Canada is one of numerous environmental groups fighting the $8.8-billion Site C dam planned for the Peace River. The dam will allow the province to meet its growing electricity needs with clean renewable energy.

Yes, hydro dams produce carbon emissions, triggered by submerging trees and other vegetation. But these pale compared with much dirtier power alternatives, such as burning oil or coal to produce electricity. Site C, slated to come on stream in 2024, would mitigate the growth in greenhouse gas emissions by substantially reducing the discharge of carbon, the federal government concluded in its approval the project.

According to Hydro-Québec, lifetime emissions from hydro projects are roughly the same as wind and less than solar – two power sources that seduce many climate-change activists.

The Sierra Club of New Hampshire is leading a campaign to block the $1.6-billion (U.S.) Northern Pass transmission line that would take Quebec hydroelectricity to markets in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Sierra Club officials have decried Quebec hydro as "dirty power from a foreign country."

And yet it would be vastly healthier for the planet. Both states currently get significant chunks of their power from natural gas and other fossil fuels. Seventy-eight per cent of Massachusetts' power is generated from fossil fuels. In Connecticut, it's nearly 50 per cent.

Story continues below advertisement

When climate-change demonstrators rallied on Parliament Hill earlier this month, they formed a giant human mosaic – spelling out "100 per cent possible" – to highlight the goal of making the world's energy sources entirely renewable by 2050.

It is an inspiring goal, for sure.

But to suggest that we can and should get there without "dirty" hydro and nuclear is a fantasyland.

Canada is a relatively small piece of the global climate-change challenge.

Imagine where the world would be if China wasn't investing massively in hydro and nuclear. The answer is, of course, burning a whole lot more truly dirty coal. The country is in the midst of doubling its nuclear capacity – an effort that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10 times as much as stricter U.S. and European fuel standards.

There is dirty and there is downright filthy. Surely, the time has come to look beyond our own backyard and see the bigger picture.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter