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Massive electricity system upgrades needed for net-zero 2050

A new Clean Energy Canada report – Underneath it All – states the country is not ready to meet a...

Underneath It All

A new report states Canada is not ready to meet a net-zero emissions 2050 target. (Clean Energy Canada)

A new Clean Energy Canada report – Underneath it All – states the country is not ready to meet a net-zero emissions 2050 target. Despite being the world’s sixth-largest electricity producer and third-largest electricity exporter, with a grid that’s 83 per cent emissions-
free, the organization says Canada will need roughly twice as much electricity to meet its goals.

“The transition to clean energy is not about sacrificing our way of life — it’s about improving it. But we’ll need the power to make it happen,” writes executive director Merran Smith in an introductory note.

A study published in the Nature Communications journal ranked Canada second out of 42 countries in its ability to meet electricity needs from solar and wind power.

After the Crown and private utilities, Indigenous communities are the largest single owners of clean energy enterprises in the country. A 2020 assessment by Indigenous Clean Energy Social Enterprise identified between 2,107 and 2,507 existing Indigenous clean energy projects encompassing power generation, electricity transmission, heat production and energy efficiency in Canada.

“It would be fair to describe Indigenous people as the country’s strongest clean energy community,” according to a separate Microgrid Knowledge report.

Despite this, Clean Energy’s report states Canada added less solar and wind generation in the last five years than almost any other G20 country save for Indonesia, Russia and Saudi Arabia. What’s more, we rank seventh globally in CO2 emissions per capita, higher than Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

We also have the highest electricity demand per capita in the G20, highlighting how important decarbonizing is for that sector.

Canada’s residential electricity is the cheapest in the G7. The provinces with the cleanest grids, Manitoba, B.C. and Quebec, also have the lowest rates in the country.

How do we get there?

To get to net zero, the report has a number of suggestions including investing in a national clean electricity system, improving provincial collaboration and streamlining the approval process for new clean energy projects.

It underlines four reasons for doing so:

– to ensure Canada can effectively combat climate change;

– to diversify and strengthen Canada’s economy;

– to further expand Indigenous clean energy ownership; and

– improve energy security and affordability.

With 17 per cent of Canada’s electricity generated from nuclear plants in Ontario and New Brunswick, the report does not take a stance on whether the country should scale up production of its nuclear facilities.

However, it does mention that Canada’s next generation of small modular reactors are not expected to be operational until close to 2030.

What about the rest of the world?

The International Energy Agency estimates that for the world to reach net zero by 2050, electricity generation worldwide must increase by over 2.5 times between today and 2050.

When it comes to juicing our economy, Canada already exports eight per cent of its electricity to the United States to the tune of $2.7 billion. But that, along with low-cost green hydrogen production, could be increased.

“Our southern neighbour has made it very clear — as evidenced by the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline — what kind of energy it wants more of going forward,” the report reads.

It uses South Australia as a case study for the positive impacts of clean electricity.

The state gets 62 per cent of its electricity from wind and solar, and combined with grid-scale battery storage, has not lost a single hour of electricity in the past five years. South Australia expects 100 per cent of its electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030.

This improvement in both reliability and emissions intensity has also resulted in a $276 reduction in annual household electricity costs since 2018.

Companies leading the way

Given that each province administers its energy differently, the report suggests implementing the Pan-Canadian Grid Council proposed by the Liberal Party, “which will work to establish national standards, best practices, and incentives to promote infrastructure investments, smart grids, grid integration and electricity sector innovation.”

It also singles out Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners, General Fusion, St. John’s Energy and Hydrostor as Canadian companies that are helping towards the clean electricity grid future. On December 1, minister of natural resources Jonathan Wilkinson opened up a call for expressions of interest for low-carbon fuels research development and demonstration (RD&D) projects which will remain open until Feb. 2, 2022.

“Many of the technologies needed to reach net zero by 2050 are still in various stages of development, including clean fuels and decarbonization solutions for heavy industry. Our government is investing in targeted RD&D in both of these areas to help grow the economy and move us toward our climate targets,” he said in a statement.

Clean Energy Canada is a climate and energy think tank housed at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University. The organization was founded in early 2010.

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