Over the life of this blog I have written a lot about renewable energy and climate change and one thing I’ve come to recognize is how expensive the transition to a fossil fuel-free future will be. This topic is coming to the fore in BC where we are at the start of an election campaign and one of the big election debates will be about energy policy. Topics under discussion will include the Site C Dam and BC Hydro’s reliance on Independent Power Producers (IPPs).
The Site C Dam is a prime example of a topic where the environmental activists in our province continue to demonstrate cognitive dissonance. They demand that we achieve environmental goals while at the same time fighting against any of the compromises needed to achieve those goals. As I will spend the rest of this blog explaining, the transition to a fossil fuel-free future (and the fight against climate change) is going to require a lot of hard work, sacrifices, compromises and money. Unfortunately, the environmental community believes we can achieve the former without having to contribute any of the latter.
Let’s start with some background. It is almost a year since Canada agreed in principal to the Paris Agreement and Canada is working, slowly towards meeting our Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). In our NDC Canada committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. In 2014 (latest numbers on Environment Canada’s chart) Canada emitted 732 Megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalents (all numbers from Environment Canada). To achieve our NDC goal we need to get that number down to 523 Mt. That is a reduction of 209 Mt of emissions. So how will we achieve our goal? Simply put we need to electrify everything we can while simultaneously ensuring that the electricity used is low-carbon or carbon-free.
Canada is a special case in the world in that we generate almost 80% of our electrical supply without emitting greenhouse gases. What does this mean? It means that we don’t have much low-hanging fruit to work with to reduce our emissions and meet our NDC goals. Since Canadian electricity emissions in 2014 were 78 Mt, even if we eliminated all our electricity emissions we would only achieve 37% of our goal. This means something else must give and one of the biggest culprits is our transportation sector which represented 171Mt of emissions in 2014. As I have described in a previous blog post, electrifying our transportation system will require a massive upgrade of our electricity generation capacity. By my calculations British Columbia will require on the order of 16,000 GWh of additional capacity for our gasoline vehicles and approximately 11,500 GWh for our diesel vehicles. Overall, using this blog’s favourite measure of energy generation we are looking at over 6 Site C Dam equivalents of electricity just to cover our transportation needs.
Another reasonable place to see major reductions in fossil fuel emissions would be in buildings (cooking, heating and hot water). Buildings generated 87Mt of emissions in 2014. Even with efficiencies, electrifying that sector will require the energy equivalent to 4-5 Site C Dams.
Now nothing I have written to this point is terribly controversial. Some may quibble about EV efficiency numbers but regardless of whether you agree with me, or feel I have overstated the numbers, the conclusion is the same: to achieve our Paris Agreement goals we will need a huge increase in our electrical generating capacity. This raises the question: why aren’t we hearing any of this from any of our politicians. The answer is simple, because none of our energy regulators have gotten around to producing new load forecasts that incorporate our Paris Agreement commitments. The last time BC Hydro did a major load forecast it did not include the need to electrify transportation or buildings, rather the 2012 load forecast assumed that 5% of light duty vehicles will be electric in 2020 with that number rising to 20% in 2028. Those are incredibly low numbers if we are going to address climate change.
As for natural gas, the 2012 forecast never envisioned the possibility that cities like Vancouver would seek to completely eliminate the use of natural gas. So when DeSmog Canada shows interviews of Harry Swain saying that we won’t need the electricity produced by the Site C Dam, the correct response is to point out that Mr. Swain’s work (and expertise) pre-dates the Paris Agreement and is not relevant in a post-Paris Agreement world.
As for Mr. Swain’s suggestion in his many DeSmog Canada interviews that we switch to alternatives like geothermal I will simply point you to what the environmentalists said the last time the government tried to make it easier to explore for geothermal energy. To save you the read, I can summarize by pointing out that they were almost unanimous in their opposition to the bill.
I know that someone is going to ask: what about solar energy? To that I simply point to a solar insolation map of BC (also here is a simplified solar insolation chart of BC and a link to spreadsheet from Natural Resources Canada for the entire country here) and remind you that Prince Rupert has one of the lowest average levels of solar insolation in North America. The term you should think about is regionally-appropriate renewables and frankly except for the extreme southeast, and limited parts of the Okanagan and maybe the Peace, solar simply isn’t the right approach for BC.
BC has three major viable sources of low carbon power: wind, geothermal and hydro (note I do not include tidal or wave energy because while we have a lot of potential these technologies are still not technologically ready to be broadly implemented). In order to develop those resources we will need to make use of the obvious opportunities (like Site C) as well as as many smaller, local projects that we can find. Given the time frames, the only way to develop all those new sources is by bringing in the money available from the private sector. The public sector simply doesn’t have the resources to build all those projects in the time available and if you are going to need the private sector to invest then you are going to need to use the IPP process.
Now I’m sure my many detractors aren’t going to let me get away with saying the transition is going to be expensive without proof, so why don’t we look at what our friends at the Leap Manifesto foresee it costing. As anyone who has read this blog knows I have a lot to say about the Leap Manifesto having dedicated the equivalent of a novella’s worth of writing to debunking it; but for the sake of argument let’s assume that their estimate of costs is correct (I would argue it is massively low). Using their numbers it would cost Canada $1.8 trillion of investment by 2050 just for the basic energy generation installations. That doesn’t count infrastructure needs; the costs to upgrade our electrical grid; or the costs to decommission existing facilities. As I wrote previously:
Now assuming we spread the costs evenly between 2016 and 2050 (34 years) that comes out to the low-low-price of $53 billion per year to build that infrastructure. Remember we haven’t considered the infrastructure necessary to build that infrastructure (roads etc…) or the costs to do the environmental assessments on all those projects, we are simply talking about the capital costs of the actual units themselves. Talking about environmental assessments, given Canada’s history of welcoming large industrial power facilities, I am quite certain there will be no delays in initiating the construction of all these facilities…just look at how smoothly Site C has been progressing in BC. There have been no added legal costs or anything like that have there?
To close this post let’s reiterate a few facts: fighting climate change is going to be a very expensive, electricity-intensive project that will take a huge political will; the expenditures of massive financial resources; and cooperation between the private and public sectors. This is not something that can be accomplished by governments alone and it will mean making huge sacrifices and compromises. We need to massively ramp up our electricity supply and in doing so we need to ensure that much/most/all of that new capacity is low carbon. We must recognize that no matter how cheap solar PV panels get, solar will be no more than a marginal source of energy in a province this far from the equator.
By 2050, we will need to be self-sufficient in low carbon energy because our neighbours to the south and east are fighting the same battles that we are. We won’t be able to simply dip into Alberta or Washington’s energy supplies when the wind is not blowing. Sure we will be able to get more power from the Columbia River Agreement but that won’t make a dent in our 2050 energy needs. To meet our climate change goals, we need to dive headlong into geothermal, wind and run-of-river hydro. We are going to need to take advantage of the massive financial resources of the private sector and to do that we must give them assurances that we will buy the power they produce, hence IPPs.
To build those new sources we have to accept that energy is going to get a lot more expensive but that is the price of completely converting our energy system from one based on carbon to one that is essentially carbon-free. That means we are going to have to get used to high energy prices and that our government is going to have to find a way to shelter the poorest among us from the sticker-shock. Most importantly, the environmentalists are going to have to learn to compromise. You can’t build geothermal if you aren’t allowed to drill where the geothermal is located. You can’t electrify our system without upgrading our electric grid and building new transmission lines. It is time to decide if you want to fight climate change or not because our environmental community appears to think that they can get rid of fossil fuels without building anything to replace the power generated by fossil fuels.
Author’s Note: This post has been revised to provide better detail on solar insolation in BC.
For a very good resource on renewables in BC I would head over to the Clean Energy BC website.