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Electricity Canada report laments lack of net-zero grid progress

Electricity Canada has sounded the alarm once again about what it considers the federal governmen...

IMAGE: Electricity Canada report cover

The cover of Electricity Canada’s latest report. (Screenshot via Electricity Canada)

Electricity Canada has sounded the alarm once again about what it considers the federal government’s lack of concrete action on its commitment to create a net-zero electricity grid by 2035.

There are just over 5,000 days left until Dec. 31, 2035, the deadline the feds have set for a carbon-free electrical grid. But the Accelerate Net-Zero: State of the Canadian Electricity Industry 2022 report, issued by the national forum for the electricity industry, offers familiar criticism.

“The largest concern we have today is the one we had four years ago,” said Francis Bradley, Electricity Canada’s CEO, in an interview with SustainableBiz. “Since we’ve been doing the status industry reports, our principal concern has been, how can we move from discussions about the energy transition to actually taking action?”

Founded in 1891 as the Canadian Electricity Association, the Ottawa-based organization has 42 members and 87 corporate partners including Black and Veatch Canada, Deloitte, EY and IBM Canada Ltd.

The 2022 report states that, based on current loads, Canada will need to replace over 121 TWh (terawatt-hours) of carbon-emitting electricity each year to reach a clean grid by 2035. It takes 36,000 MW of generating capacity to produce those 121 TWh, but over the past five years Canada has added about 3,000 MW of non-emitting capacity annually.

Bradley says what’s needed is an approach similar to the adoption of universal healthcare in the 1950s and ’60s.

13 provincial, territorial electrical grids

What he means is that every province and territory is responsible for its own healthcare system, but wherever one goes in Canada they will have access to that care. Similarly, there are 13 electricity grids across the nation, but it will take the participation of each to hit that net-zero standard.

“The federal government needs to play a similar kind of role as convener,” Bradley said. “No matter where you go in this country, we have universal health care and we need the same kind of effort to be able to reach a 2050 net-zero economy in Canada.”

While 82 per cent of Canada’s electricity already comes from non-emitting sources, there’s still a long road ahead with little in the way of concrete steps toward action.

“We still see pathways to meeting those targets of 2030 and 2035 for electricity, but each day we continue to have discussions and consultations, the more anxious we become about the ability to meet those targets over the longer term,” he explained.

He referred to a paper from Environment and Climate Change Canada, released earlier this month, which is another invitation for discussion and consultation on how to achieve a clean electricity standard. The paper is not a misstep in and of itself, but Bradley said it represents the latest in a long line of discussions that seldom result in action.

The same concerns apply to the 2050 net-zero GHG goal. To meet that, Canada will need to deliver two to three times the electricity which is used today.

Net-zero goal remains a long way off

To drive home the gravity of that challenge, he said between 2005 and 2019, Canada cut its emissions by 1.5 per cent. The country now has eight years remaining to cut the other 38.5 per cent which is required to hit its 40 per cent reduction goal by 2030.

Financially, the report estimates the federal government will need to invest $1.7 trillion by 2050 to make good on its net-zero promises.

Bradley knows what he’d like to see in Electricity Canada’s 2023 report. He wants to be able to chronicle that the consultations are complete, the clean energy standard has been unveiled and the industry has the concrete steps needed for transition. He also hopes it will include financial incentives for new investments in non-emitting energy generation, like hydrogen and nuclear.

The report outlines a few direct actions the country should take to reach that net-zero grid:

– increase investments in clean energy generation sources including renewables, small modular reactors and hydrogen;

– support companies working on grid-scale “longer duration” energy storage solutions;

– encourage interprovincial transmission;

– support distribution system upgrades, including smart grid applications;

– support further research and deployment of carbon capture and storage;

– and provide financial assistance, including rebates, for behind the meter customer energy solutions and energy conservation.

The report uses the recent energy crises in Texas and California as case studies to advocate for the importance of these steps. This includes the increasingly necessary modernization of Canada’s electricity grid to be better prepared as climate disasters become more common.

Responsible energy transition

While he said some elements of the federal emissions reduction plan can be achieved nationally or at the regional level, there’s still plenty of progress to be made in the realm of provincial cooperation.

He also stressed any responsible energy transition must be accomplished in partnership with Indigenous Peoples, along with the ever-increasing importance placed on ESG principles. In fact, one of the primary recommendations for provincial and territorial regulators is to include environmental and social considerations in their regular utility review processes.

“It’s not only a commitment that we’re seeing for people in the industry, because they believe in this and believe that this is the right thing to do,” Bradley said. “It’s also an expectation that customers have, that civil society has, and that . . . the investment community also has.”

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