As war rages, Canada talks a good energy transition game, but Europe delivers

Politicians, utilities failing to modernize Canada’s electricity sector fast enough

Canada won’t be boosting oil and gas exports in response to the global energy crisis, says Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault. Nor should it. The energy future is clean electricity and low-carbon fuels like hydrogen. And Europe is about to show the world how to grasp that future. Canadians, take note.

The European released an extraordinary document Tuesday, the outline of a new energy plan designed to wean EU states off Russian oil and gas “well before 2030.” There will be measures to limit price increases, improve electricity markets, boost renewables, produce biogas from landfills, switch to electric cars and heat pumps, and many others. All by itself, Germany committed 200 billion euros between now and 2026 to jumpstart the switch.

Guilbeault thinks Canada should emulate the Europeans. “They’re doubling down and they see this crisis as an opportunity to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy,” he told the National Observer. “The solution is to move away from fossil fuels…That’s how we ultimately reduce our dependency.”

Unfortunately, Canada faces a major roadblock to moving away from fossil fuels: where will it get the two to three times more electricity needed to displace oil and gas?

Watch my interview with UBC professors Roland Clift and Tony Bi for a provincial example of this problem. British Columbia has one of the cleanest power grids in the country, 95 per cent zero-emission hydropower. And John Horgan’s NDP government has one of the most ambitious climate plans in CleanBC. BC seems ideally positioned to kick the hydrocarbon habit. Not even close, say Clift and Bi.

Electricity accounts for less than 17 per cent of provincial energy use. Electrifying transportation, buildings, and industry will require two to three times the current 18,000 megawatts of generating capacity provided by 34 hydro dams. When completed, the Site C dam will only provide 1,100 megawatts of capacity. Where will the rest come from?

No one knows. Horgan has kicked that problem to the notoriously stodgy BC Hydro – and without a clear legislative mandate to solve it. The publicly-owned utility’s 2021 strategy was panned by clean energy consultant Dan Woynillowicz as “a 20th century plan for the 21st century.”

Clift and Bi say BC will need huge wind and solar farms to supply the necessary power. More east-west inter-ties with the Prairie provinces could be part of the solution. BC may even have to consider small modular nuclear reactors.

Unfortunately, few people in BC are talking about the issue. The common view seems to be that BC Hydro will somehow find the electricity sometime in the future.

Energy Minister Bruce Ralston even remarked last year that BC would simply buy “cheap California solar.” Bad idea, say US experts. That plan might work in the short-term but California is already investing in new ways to use its cheap solar, such as HyDeal LA.

BC is not unusual. Canadian leaders for some reason are reluctant to have the conversation about necessary changes to Canada’s electricity system, says Dr. Bruce Lourie, CEO of the Ivey Foundation.

“To be honest, I’m not sure we’re seeing the kind of leadership out of the utility and electricity sector that we need to even envision what a 2050 electricity grid looks like,” he said.  “How do we even get there?”

Like BC, Canada is taking a 20th century approach to an urgent 21st century challenge. What will it take to wake up Canadians – and their leaders – to the urgency of addressing that challenge?

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