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In depth
| 07/21/17

Clean up the grid. Electrify everything.

Sybil Seitzinger


“Clean up the grid. Electrify everything.”

This deceptively simple – but useful – description sums up what is needed to achieve the bulk of the deep decarbonisation of our economy and to meet our ambitious international and domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions targets.

Roughly two-thirds of global GHG emissions come from the combustion of fossil fuels for electricity, heating, transport and industry. The remaining third comes from sources that cannot be electrified including agriculture, land-use change, waste, and from chemical reactions in cement and steel manufacturing. The switching of fossil fuels for new or existing clean sources of energy will be a mammoth task.

Let’s consider it from the perspective of all the energy we use, not just electricity. Even British Columbia, with its hydroelectricity resources that supply 97 percent of its electricity needs, is under pressure to expand its energy mix. That’s because nearly two thirds of the energy used in BC comes from combustion of fossil fuels (transport, heating, cooling and industry), with electricity being the minor player.

BC, and indeed Canada, has each set long-term GHG reduction targets of 80 percent below 2007 and 2005 levels respectively. Therefore the future energy landscape needs to look vastly different by 2050 than it does today. All coal, oil and gas-fired power plants have to be replaced with something that doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. And all of transport, heating/cooling and industry has to be electrified.

BC likely needs to at least double its electricity generation to achieve ‘deep decarbonisation’

To meet those targets, energy forecasters estimate that demand for electricity will double in BC, according to two projections by BC Hydro exploring the impact of deep decarboninsation, while Canada will need a two-to-four fold increase in supply, according to projections in the federal government’s Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Gas Strategy.

Furthermore, analysis by the PICS 2060 Project shows that between 2005 and 2015, BC was a net importer of electricity for five of those years, and had a net electricity balance close to zero over the whole period. There is no “extra fat” in the system.

Clearly, new clean energy sources are needed, as BC, Canada and indeed the world shifts to electrify transport and other sectors, and electricity demand ramps up. On the face of it we seem to have a host of existing technologies at our disposal – for example wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, and nuclear – but each option comes with its own challenges and limitations. These include issues of intermittency and therefore reliability, energy storage, scalability, land-use change, hazardous waste disposal, social licence, accessibility, and cost. Unfortunately there is no single silver bullet.

As a policy-neutral, technology-neutral organisation, PICS has supported research into a range of potential clean energy sources—including wave, high-altitude kite energy, floating offshore wind, nuclear and geothermal—as well research into improving or cleaning up existing technologies including solar, wind, and oil and gas production.

This spring, PICS released a glossy report entitled Wave Energy: A Primer for British Columbia that explores the feasibility of harnessing electrical energy off BC’s wild west coast. Co-authored by researchers at UVic’s West Coast Wave Initiative (WCWI), the primer summarises their findings about the magnitude of BC’s wave energy potential, explains how wave energy converters (WECs) work, and examines the opportunities and challenges of this fledgling sector. The researchers now for the first time have sufficient data about ideal BC coast locations to start testing wave energy converters in the water, with the initial beneficiaries tipped to be remote coastal First Nations communities currently energy dependent on diesel. The long-term goal? For wave energy to make the same technological and cost-efficiency gains that solar and wind have in the past decade in order to become a meaningful contributor to the electrical grid. However the cost, scale issues, and biofouling challenges facing WECs shows that the wave industry has a long way to go before commercialisation without strong policy support.

Our researchers are also currently engaged in a comprehensive mapping and economic assessment of another energy option for BC – geothermal resources in the northeast of the province. Results of this research are due out early next year.

Which technologies and policy options are best for transport decarbonisation likewise is a thorny topic, as is what balance should be struck between carbon pricing and regulatory intervention. Recent controversies in Vancouver over use of natural gas in restaurants shows that there is still a lot of misunderstanding amongst the public and policy-makers over replacement of conventional natural gas by electricity or biogas for heating and cooking.

Forestry too can play its part. The PICS Forest Management Project has recently produced a primer and a series of public events showcasing its findings on how this sector boosts carbon mitigation through different management approaches, and greater substitution of manufactured wood products for carbon-intensive concrete and steel.

Canadians’ ‘climate literacy’ is strong, but we now need to improve our ‘energy systems literacy’

Canada is lucky in that unlike in some countries, a large majority of its citizens accept the reality of anthropogenic global warming and the need to take action to tackle it. For years, important efforts have been mounted improving what we might call ‘climate literacy’ amongst the public. In this country, those efforts have largely been successful. But there is substantial disagreement over what is to be done about it, and perhaps even greater disagreement over what sort of low-carbon energy mix is best to achieve deep decarbonisation. Our researchers increasingly now talk about the need to improve ‘energy systems literacy’.

The federal government’s Mid-Century Strategy document, exploring a range of options for deep decarbonisation by 2050, was one of the first comprehensive considerations of the colossal scale of the energy infrastructure task. Its first “key message” stated that while most Canadians recognise the need to mitigate climate change, “the magnitude of the challenge is less well understood.”

The first chapter of the climate story in this country, realising that global warming is a clear danger to our way of life, is over. The next chapter, a frank, evidence-based conversation about deep decarbonisation pathways, accompanied by effective adaptation to the warming that is already locked in and set to increase, has only just begun.

Sybil Seitzinger, PICS Executive Director



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