This is part one of a two-part series on electrification. In part two, we will explore what a diversified and smart electrification pathway looks like.
Electrification means replacing current technologies that use fossil fuels with electricity from renewables as the primary source of energy. Doing this has the potential to reduce “end of the pipe” greenhouse gases. However, most publications and commentators that talk about a pan Canadian electrification strategy never provide details about the quantity of generation (either in flows or capacity) that will be needed to materially increase the role of electricity in the larger energy system. Similarly, these assessments also fail to consider the financial costs, the spatial implications, whether the goal is technically possible, nor the order of magnitude increase of materials and energy inputs needed, as reviewed here. Regardless, we agree additional electrification of the Canadian economy is likely to be a good thing. The question is, how big is the challenge and what do we need to do to get at least part way there?
The math is quite straightforward. And for purposes of understanding the quantum of electricity theoretically needed to electrify 100% of Canada’s energy system, all energy units in this discussion are converted to gigawatt hours.
In 2019, if Canada were to have had a fully electric broader energy system, we would have needed to generate about 3,200,000 GWh,
which is 5 times more electricity than we produce today (~650,000 GWh). And even this figure is not representative of the additional installed generation capacity that would be required because non-traditional renewables produce less reliable energy flows for every unit of installed capacity — an often-overlooked fact.
The size of the economy-wide energy transformation to non-GHG emissions sources is so big it is difficult to imagine. The easiest way to see this is to look at known, recently completed, or under construction large hydroelectric projects — Site C here in B.C. at 1.1 GW and 5,100 GWh per year, Muskrat Falls in Newfoundland at 0.824 GW and 4,900 GWh per year, and Keeysak in Manitoba at 0.695 GW and 4,400 GWh per year. In 2019, to bridge the ~2,600,000 GWh
difference in required energy flows to achieve 100% electrification of the entire energy system, Canada would have needed the equivalent of an additional 508 Site C’s, 529 Muskrat Falls, 589 Keeysak projects, or 133 Darlington
nuclear generation facilities to be in operation! Going forward this gap will widen because of future population and economic growth.
Let that sink in.
A more modest but still very challenging goal is the Canadian government’s stated aspiration of “increasing the share of zero-emitting [electricity] sources to 90 percent by 2030.”
With electricity demand growth to 2030, Canada will somehow have to add total new generation sources and capacity capable of delivering at least the current electric output of Newfoundland, or the equivalent of 7.5 Site C’s, 8 Muskrat Falls, 9 Keeysaks, or 2 Darlington nuclear power plants, plus additional transmission infrastructure. Any combination of non-traditional renewable resources will require significantly more installed capacity to supply the equivalent flow of energy — the vital product that is used and valued by consumers.
Can Canada realistically achieve the 2030 goal? Perhaps, but it is a long shot and there are reasons to be skeptical, including regulatory, jurisdictional, social and community, technical, economic and investment barriers. It is not just about whether Canada phases out remaining coal fired power generation or establishes performance standards for natural gas-fired generation facilities. That is the easy part, relatively speaking. And it is not just about adding a large tranche of new non-traditional renewables, which would indeed be positive for job creation in many regions of the country and an excellent way to leverage Canada’s expertise.
The hard reality is that it takes 5 to 10 years or more to approve any moderately sized electricity project in Canada, not including the requirements of Public Utility Commissions (PUC). Then another few years are needed to construct them before a smiling politician flips the operating switch. Relying more on non-traditional renewable resources will also mean installing a lot more capacity to get the same amount of energy flows. Then there are the necessary and not insignificant adjustments to how electric systems operate to accommodate increased quantities of variable resources. B.C has an advantage in this regard,
as do Manitoba and Quebec, but few other places in Canada or the world do.
From a jurisdictional perspective, electricity systems and developments are primarily provincial in nature. While the regulatory review of facility development is often shared, regulatory oversight beyond the physical project typically falls under the purview of provincial PUCs that are supposed to represent the interests of electricity ratepayers in a region. Ratepayers usually want reliable, low-cost electricity and are generally averse to substantial rate increases. And government-induced price increases, especially if they are large and sudden, are certain to be met with resistance and to create political risks.
In addition, from a social and community perspective, it seems that while Canadians want more renewable energy, many would prefer that it be generated elsewhere. We are often conflicted about land use. Yet, there is an inevitable and necessary trade off between the footprints of renewable electricity generation facilities and other land uses. In fact, renewable energy developments tend to be more land- and materials-intensive, even if the final “tailpipe” emissions are fewer or zero. One estimate from 2010 suggested that replacing the global energy system (primarily fossil fuel based) with renewable forms of energy would occupy about 12,500,000 km2 of land, an area only slightly less than the combined area of Canada plus India, and 400 times bigger than all the energy infrastructure then in place. Since global energy consumption has increased significantly since 2010, the above figures would of course be bigger today.
Finally, developing electricity infrastructure is a complex, substantial, and lumpy capital investment process. FortisBC estimates that an electrification pathway for British Columbia, which is still nowhere near 100% electric, would cost about $146 billion to 2030 and $772 billion by 2050
— and remember, we already have an electric system that is 95% clean. Even without doing an exact extrapolation to the wider pan-Canadian context, it is clear such a transition would cost trillions. How would ratepayers respond if the result is sharply rising costs for electricity consumers? Finally, since it is now 2021, there are only 9 years left to meet the GHG for 2030 set by the Canadian government and thus to build out the electric system to enable a larger share of energy demand currently met by fossil fuels to be shifted to GHG-free electric sources.
In truth, 100% electrification does not seem possible with current technology, even by 2050, absent some disruptive innovation like fusion. In the meantime, making even modest progress toward shifting the energy system to greater use of electricity, both nationally and in British Columbia, will call for some dramatic action to tackle all the barriers to new development noted above. This includes streamlining and shortening regulatory reviews and changing stakeholder engagement processes for new projects (both generation and transmission), setting aside significant tracts of land for electricity infrastructure (generating facilities and rights of way for transmission and distribution lines), increasing access for “patient” capital to expand the electricity system, and ensuring ratepayers are shielded from prices that rise too quickly. In our view, a more likely scenario, for B.C. and for Canada, is a diversified pathway that features a role for multiple energy sources and at pace more consistent with the history of energy transitions.
 3,200,000 GWh less current renewable generation.
 Electricity generation = 19,451 GWh per year from 3.5 GW. https://www.opg.com/powering-ontario/our-generation/nuclear/darlington-nuclear/.
 Smil, Vaclav. Energy Transitions. History, Requirements, Prospects. Praeger. 2010
 Pathways for British Columbia to Achieve its GHG Reduction Goals, https://www.cdn.fortisbc.com/libraries/docs/default-source/about-us-documents/guidehouse-report.pdf?sfvrsn=dbb70958_2.
 Smil, Vaclav. Energy Transitions. History, Requirements, Prospects. Praeger. 2010.