‘Nation-building’ investments in power grid needed to reach net zero: experts

A price of tens or hundreds of billions of dollars and a scale of project similar to that of the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1800s.

This is the scale of massive investment in Canada’s electricity grid that experts say will be needed in the near future, as the phasing out of fossil fuel generation, combined with a rapid increase in demand for electricity, imposing demands never seen before. on Canada’s power grid.

“The general consensus is that we will need to double or triple the size of our electricity system by 2050,” said Bruce Lourie, president of the nonprofit advisory organization The Transition Accelerator.

A “monumental” task

“I don’t think Canadians…recognize or prepare for the monumental task ahead of us.”

The federal government, in its emissions reduction plan released last week, outlines the need for interprovincial transmission lines “for nation-building” if Canada is to have any chance of meeting its climate goal of reducing emissions. 40% below 2005 levels by 2030, and net zero emissions by 2050.

Canada already has one of the cleanest electricity grids in the world, with more than 80% of electricity generated by non-emitting sources. But slowing the pace of climate change will require electrifying more activities – from vehicles to heating and cooling buildings to various industrial processes. And not only will the country need more electricity, but more will have to come from non-emitting sources.

Slowing the pace of climate change will require electrifying more activities, including vehicles. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Move renewable energy

One way to do this would be to build new transmission lines that could carry renewable energy from jurisdictions like Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia – which have vast reserves of clean hydroelectricity – to jurisdictions like the United States. Alberta, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, which still rely on fossil fuels for electricity generation.

But this is not a simple task. In Canada, electricity falls under provincial jurisdiction and each province’s system has developed independently of the others.

Alberta, for example, has a completely deregulated electricity market, while neighboring British Columbia’s electricity is produced and sold by a Crown corporation.

“Provinces, crown corporations and electric utilities should all agree on this,” Lourie said. “Ultimately politicians are going to have to sit down and sort this out.”

The federal government has already pledged $25 million to help developers begin developing regional net-zero electricity interconnections.

Ottawa has said it wants to “lead engagement” across Atlantic Canada for the proposed Atlantic Loop initiative, which aims to connect Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to clean hydroelectricity from Quebec and Terre -New.

But it will still take a lot of work to make the Atlantic loop, or any other regional interconnection project, a reality. Not only are new transmission lines expensive (Lourie estimates that creating a true system of east-west interconnections across Canada could cost more than $100 billion), they tend to be controversial – often attracting feedback from local residents and other interest groups.

Recently, for example, voters in Maine rejected a proposed US$1 billion transmission line that would carry electricity across the state from the Hydro-Quebec grid to Massachusetts.

“It’s a pretty small group of people who don’t want a power line going through their state, but that means we’re going to have higher costs and more difficulty meeting our climate goals because of these campaigns,” Lourie said. .

construction aid

Binnu Jeyakumar, director of clean energy for environmental think tank The Pembina Institute, said Canada’s political leaders need to start working to garner support for these types of projects now.

“Transmission projects, we see them as a period of about ten years. And we certainly don’t have that kind of timeframe. We need solutions right away,” she said.

But Jeyakumar said change could happen quickly, if governments send the right market signals. She pointed to what happened in Alberta, which is set to phase out coal-fired power entirely next year after the provincial government pledged in 2015 to phase out coal-fired power by 2030. .

She said the federal government’s promised clean electricity standard, which aims to support a net-zero electricity grid by 2035, will send another clear signal to investors and incentivize spending on grid upgrades and interconnection projects.

“What this is going to do is put in regulatory carrots and sticks to make sure the network decarbonizes,” Jeyakumar said. “That’s how politics can have a real impact.”

While power infrastructure might not grab the headlines like a shiny new Tesla or a cutting-edge solar farm, Jeyakumar said other decarbonization efforts will fail if we don’t build a grid that can support them. .

“It’s one of those building blocks that needs to be changed so that we can see these types of solar projects and electric vehicles on the road,” she said.