Last month, the Government of Canada’s newly created Generation Energy Council released its report on what Canada’s low-carbon energy future would look like over the course of a generation. The council provides a pathway to reducing our carbon footprint and suggests that “within a generation, countries like Canada will be using less fossil fuels, and renewable power and other non-emitting sources of energy will command a much larger share of the world’s energy supply.”
I feel the council’s report is by no means revolutionary in its proposed roadmap to reducing our emissions. To be perfectly honest, a lot of what is proposed has been reflected elsewhere. My very first B.C. Energy Plan (A Vision for Clean Energy Leadership) in 2002 as minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources had many of the same ideas and this was 16 years ago.
The council states that “electricity accounts for only 20 % of our overall energy use today — to increase that share substantially, we will need to significantly expand our clean electricity generating capacity.” The good news is that Canada’s electricity grid is already 80 % clean thanks in part to hydro and nuclear power, two emissions-free sources. The council argues that Canada will “require major infrastructure investments nationwide, as well as restoring public confidence that this expansion can occur in an environmentally responsible way without causing a spike in electricity costs.”
I strongly support electrifying our economy. In my view, Canada should try to achieve two things: reduce current emissions from the electricity sector in general while concurrently increasing power generation to meet future demand (namely from having more electric vehicles on the roads).
Yet, renowned agencies and experts predict that fossil fuels will continue to be a dominant factor in the world’s energy mix. The world continues to consume fossil fuels at a growing rate while renewable alternatives have been making moderate breakthroughs into the market.
As Peter Tertzakian, executive director of ARC Energy Research Institute, recently wrote, “the percentage of fossil fuels in the world’s energy mix — coal, oil and natural gas — is still lingering well above 80 per cent. … We’re in an era of ‘energy diversification,’ where alternative sources to fossil fuels, notably renewables, are growing alongside — not at the expense of — the incumbents.”
I would argue that most Canadians, including myself, support having more renewable sources of energy in Canada’s supply mix including solar and wind power, but they must be affordable and efficient. However, these are both intermittent. Non-hydro renewables need to be backed-up by firm, reliable power such as hydro, nuclear, coal or natural gas, in order to meet demand when the sun literally does not shine, for example.
When appearing before the Senate in 2016, Alberta’s electricity power generator TransAlta Corporation indicated there is much potential in integrating intermittent technology into its system, but the system as a whole still needs to have baseload, reliable support from something else.
By way of example, TransAlta also explained that in order for one of its solar farms in Massachusetts to produce the same amount of generation than a 100-megawatt coal plant, it would need a geographical footprint of about 4,600 football fields. As Don Wharton, TransAlta’s Managing Director for Carbon Transition, said, “we’re going to have challenges in siting new generation.”
As far as wind is concerned, keep in mind the average wind turbine requires approximately 185 tonnes of steel, which in turn requires about 100 tonnes of metallurgical coal. And what about all that concrete for the bases? Steelmaking and concrete are both very energy and emissions-intensive.
Furthermore, while I appreciate the push for more renewables, getting a wind farm or photovoltaics built is not as easy as it seems. The environmental benefits are obvious, but receiving the so-called “social license” to build these projects can be challenging. While environmental activists are both vocal and influential when it comes to fossil fuel-related projects, the Not –In –My Backyard Movement (NIMBY) is also very outspoken. And to be quite honest, considering the current regulatory climate in Canada with respect to environmental assessments, any project (clean or otherwise) will have a difficult time getting shovels in the ground. This new Canadian reality has certainly affected our global reputation and foreign investment appeal.
I agree that Canada should actively pursue generating more electricity with renewable sources, but there are many factors to consider. I am not suggesting we can’t do more or do better, I am simply providing somewhat of a reality check so Canadians have a better understanding of the challenges that may lie ahead as we transition to a lower-carbon and expanded electricity grid.
Senator Richard Neufeld is a member of three Senate Committee: Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources; National Finance; and Arctic. He represents British Columbia in the Senate. Prior to becoming a senator, he was British Columbia’s Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources from 2001 to 2009.
This article appeared in the July 16, 2018 edition of The Hill Times.