Experts say Canada’s electricity grid needs serious investment — and reinvention — if it is to both expand massively to fight climate change and become more resilient to natural disasters.
Post-Tropical Storm Fiona, which left hundreds of thousands of people without power in Atlantic Canada, is just the latest in a long line of natural disasters that have left Canadians without power.
“I learned to go camping again. We kind of got used to it. You understand that there are people who have had it much worse than us. So we kind of wait our turn for the power to come back .and get back to some semblance of normalcy,” said Lee Fleury, a PEI resident who was without power for more than a week in Fiona’s wake. Many people in Atlantic Canada don’t still have no electricity.
But Canada needs a new normal if it is to both dramatically increase energy production and protect it from potential disasters, two experts told CBC Radio. The House in an interview aired on Saturday.
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Bruce Lourie, president of the environmental organization Ivey Foundation, said Canada will need to double or triple its electricity capacity by around 2050 to meet growing demand – partly spurred by new electrification surges for things like electric vehicles.
“Electric cars, electric heat pumps in homes, more electrification in industry. So it’s a very big task ahead of us,” he told host Catherine Cullen.
Storms highlight network vulnerabilities
Canada has long enjoyed a relatively green electricity system that derives more than 80% of its electricity from non-emitting sources. But Lourie said Canada still faces a challenge to expand the network quickly.
“Partly, I think that made us a little complacent,” he said. “So I don’t know if we are really ready for this big task ahead of us.”
Part of that job is also to make sure the network is more resilient to natural disasters of the type that left hundreds of thousands of people in Atlantic Canada in the dark after Fiona.
“What the storms really do is highlight the vulnerabilities in the system. So the vulnerabilities are there. The storms make it very real and make the impact felt by local people who are losing their power,” Lourie said.
He said Canada needs to invest in projects that “strengthen” transmission or create “microgrids” of smaller, independently powered systems.
Kristen van de Biezenbos, an associate professor at the University of Alberta specializing in energy law, said one of the goals of resilience-building efforts would be to bury power lines rather than hang them. along the poles.
But paying for these changes could be “a little tricky,” she said, because private provincial utilities (like Maritime Electric in PEI or Nova Scotia Power) may have different incentives. of those that motivate state corporations.
“Building more infrastructure is going to cost money and making changes to the system to make it more resilient is also going to cost money,” she said.
The two experts said that while adding renewable and resilient energy capacity has a significant upfront cost, it would likely be cheaper over time.
A need for interprovincial collaboration
One factor to consider, van de Biezenbos said, is that the federal government has traditionally played a minor role in power transmission infrastructure, leaving most of the work to the provinces.
The federal government has set targets for increasing electricity production and improving the grid. National Resources Canada has a smart grid program to improve efficiency and reliability, for example, and the government’s emissions reduction plan also includes a section on electricity.
Part of this plan calls for “accelerating the development of transformative and nation-building interprovincial transmission lines” — connecting provinces so that electricity can flow more easily across Canada.
It has been a grim prospect in the past, van de Biezenbos said.
“There was no pressure from the federal government to make this happen,” she said. “And the provinces…say they don’t really see the economic benefits and their own taxpayers aren’t interested in spending money to connect to other provinces.”
Lourie noted that Canada lags behind peer countries when it comes to the type of regional planning that would connect more areas across jurisdictions. National Resources Canada has established what it calls the Regional Energy and Resource Tables, which seek to promote cooperation between the provinces and between Ottawa and the provinces.
In a statement to CBC News, a spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said that in a future green economy, “a clean and affordable electricity grid – one that is resilient to increasingly severe climate hazards – is a enormous competitive advantage”.
“Minister Wilkinson is focused on working with provinces, territories, Indigenous partners and others to ensure this benefit for every region of Canada,” said Director of Communications, Ian Cameron.
The proposed Atlantic Loop, which would connect four provinces, is an example of this type of collaboration, and the premiers have asked the federal government to decide whether it will fund the estimated $5 billion project.
“The greater the integration between systems, the larger the zones, the greater the diversity of supply – ultimately, the greater the resilience,” Lourie said.
Although regional integration has not been the norm in the past, van de Biezenbos said there was reason to hope that might change now. Where once the feeling was “it wasn’t really going to happen,” she said, there seems to be recent momentum.
“But it would be a big departure from the way things are traditionally done in Canada – and it would be expensive.”