What about the oil sands? Harper’s goal of 90% emission-free electricity by 2020 not so ambitious

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, recently re-elected, gave his Throne Speech today and reiterated the Conservative party’s campaign promise of having 90 per cent of Canada’s electricity come from “non-emitting” sources by 2020. The media have characterized this as “ambitious,” and while it seems so on the surface, it’s not so challenging when you look at the numbers.

In fact, what it really means is increasing the amount of power we get from non-emitting sources by 25 per cent. But using a figure like 90 per cent sounds a lot more impressive than 25 per cent.

Canada generates about 510 terawatt-hours of electricity, and 72 per cent of that already comes from non-emitting sources — 58 per cent from hydroelectric power and 12 per cent from nuclear power (these are rough calculations, but in the ballpark). Fossil fuels represent 28 per cent of production, and most of that comes out of coal and natural gas plants in Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan.

Ontario has already announced it will be closing all its coal plants by 2014, and plants currently operational have a combined capacity of about 6,500 megawatts.  When they are shut down, the amount of non-emitting power production in Canada climbs to 78 per cent. So between now and 2020 we’ve got 12 years to make up the other 12 per cent. It means almost cutting in half the amount of fossil fuel power generation used outside of Ontario.

Now, cutting in half that amount of fossil fuels means displacing it with 60 terawatt-hours of electricity from non-emitting resources. It means installing about 10,000 industrial wind turbines (100 wind farms?), or eight 1,200 MW nuclear reactors, or 100 large biomass thermal power plants (like EPCOR’s Williams Lake biomass plant in B.C.), or some combination of those along with solar PV and distributed generation. I won’t even include geothermal power in this because our government is asleep on that one.

So in 12 years it might, in one scenario, include a couple dozen new wind farms, a couple dozen large biomass plants, a couple of reactors, a dozen solar farms and, hell, let’s thrown in a few 50-megawatt geothermal power projects and two or three carbon capture and storage “clean coal” plants just to make it interesting. This excludes the massive, but too often ignored potential of reducing electricity load through conservation, efficiency, and waste-energy recovery.

The government scenario is probably to do most of it with nuclear and clean coal (with storage) with a dash of wind and solar thrown in to make them look interested in renewables, even though getting that much nuclear and clean coal in operation (with storage) by 2020 is a pipe dream.

Either way, the target is completely doable, and while not a cakewalk (i.e. it’s harder than the status quo), certainly not as ambitious as some would think. Not to trash Harper, because certainly doing nothing is an option, but emphasizing this goal in his Throne Speech while excluding talk of the real problem in Canada — emissions from the oil sands — shows that he’s trying to take the public’s eye off the ball by playing up efforts that aren’t as ambitious as they might look and which already have momentum because of provincial — not federal — initiatives.

Fact is efforts underway in Ontario alone achieve a third of Harper’s goal, and further efforts by British Columbia and other provinces make it easier for Alberta to continue getting 90 per cent of its electricity from coal and natural gas. By emphasizing electricity goals, which are clearly provincial jurisdiction, Harper hopes to take credit for the efforts of others. Where federal policy can influence things, such as in the oil sands, he kept characteristically silent today.

NOTE: Harper’s electricity goal got me thinking about Obama’s plan of having 25 per cent of U.S. power come from renewables by 2025. The U.S. currently gets 8.5 per cent from renewables, so getting it to 25 per cent would mean adding roughly 700 terawatt-hours of new renewables. Now, direct comparisons are tough because Harper is targeting 2020 and Obama is targeting 2025. But when you do the standard 10x calculation to account for population differences between Canada and the U.S., then we’re comparing 600 terawatts to 700 terawatts.

Pretty close, right? Not really. That’s because Harper says “non-emitting sources,” so that would include nuclear in existing figures and nuclear and clean coal in future electricity added to the grid. Obama doesn’t include nuclear and clean coal in his targets. He’s talking pure renewables. So the difference here is key.

And unlike Canada’s federal Conservatives, Obama is tying investment in clean energy to the creation of millions of jobs, he has set a goal of putting 1 million domestically built plug-in hybrids on the road, and has put huge emphasis on the need for energy efficiency (and this, along with electrification of transportation, is part of his strategy of weaning the U.S. off oil from the Middle East and Venezuela). He has also said one of his top priorities is to expand and upgrade the U.S. electrical grid so it can accomodate all these renewables and move them to areas of the country where they’re needed. Despite years of talk about establishing an east-west grid in Canada there’s been zero talk, let alone action, from the federal government about investing in or facilitating such an initiative.

30 thoughts on “What about the oil sands? Harper’s goal of 90% emission-free electricity by 2020 not so ambitious”

  1. In fact, what it really means is increasing the amount of power we get from non-emitting sources by 25 per cent. But using a figure like 90 per cent sounds a lot more impressive than 25 per cent.

    This is tougher than you think.

    In order to have 90% non-emitting power, you need to have ten times more capacity in non-emitting sources like hydroelectricity, nuclear, and renewables than you have in emitting capacity like coal and natural gas plants. Right now, Canada has somewhere around 110 gigawatts (GW) of total installed electrical capacity: 70% of which is non-emitting.

    In every case, you have ten times more non-emitting (clean) capacity than emitting (dirty) capacity. Therefore, getting to the 90% target while retaining all 33 GW of Canada’s dirty capacity means bumping our clean capacity from 77 GW to 330 GW – an increase of 253 GW.

    To put that in perspective, 253 gigawatts is 230% of Canada’s current total electrical generating capacity. 253 gigawatts is more than thirty-seven times the capacity of the Grand Coulee Dam and is equivalent to more than fourty times the output of the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station. 253 gigawatts is more than eleven times the generating capacity of the Three Gorges Dam.

    A more detailed discussion is on my site.

  2. Here is a basic chart showing how much new non-emitting capacity is required to reach the 90% objective, based on different regimes for dealing with the emitting capacity we have.

    On the left are scenarios where we build more emitting capacity (up to doubling the current quantity). On the right are scenarios where we cut back.

  3. Using the following basic equation, we can work out how much non-emitting energy we need in order to reach the 90% objective, based on different scenarios for what happens to the emitting capacity:

    0.90 = (gigawatts non-emitting) / (gigawatts non-emitting + gigawatts emitting)

    It is pretty basic. If I have a bag of apples and oranges, in which 90% of the contents are apples, I need to have ten times more apples than oranges.

  4. For one, I’m talking terawatt-hours, not capacity.

    Also, who says you must retain all 33 GW of fossil fuel capacity? In the case of Ontario fossil is being shut down and replaced with a combination of natural gas and non-emitting, with the natural gas portion phased out over the next 12 years. Now, there will be demand growth between now and then, but much of that can be kept to a minimum through energy efficiency and conservation efforts that are already underway. The current economic slowdown will also have an impact.

  5. Converting between capacity and terawatt-hours is pretty easy. You just multiply the capacity by the number of active hours per year.

    The chart I linked above shows the range of possible combinations for shutting down emitting capacity and building new non-emitting capacity.

    Ontario closed the first of the province’s five coal-fired plants, the Lakeview Generating Station located in the western Greater Toronto Area, on May 1st, 2005. The remaining plants are:

    * Nanticoke (4,096 MW)
    * Lambton (1,972 MW)
    * Thunder Bay (303 MW)
    * Atikokan (211 MW)

    Total installed capacity: 6582 MW (6% of Canada’s 2004 installed capacity)

    At 100% capacity, these plants would produce 57.7 terawatt-hours of electricity per year: about 10% of Canada’s total production.

    The elimination of all of Ontario’s coal-fired electrical capacity would increase the proportion of non-emitting Canadian electricity generation to 74.5%, if the capacity was simply eliminated or it was entirely replaced with non-emitting sources of energy. The replacement of coal-fired plants with those that use fuels that produce more electricity per unit of GHG emissions (such as natural gas) would not increase the proportion of electricity being produced from non-emitting sources, though it would reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions when compared with a scenario in which coal-fired capacity is retained.

  6. As with your disclaimer above, these figures may not be 100% correct. There are also cases where calculations are based on statistics from different years.

    With those caveats stated, I think the figures are broadly correct. It is quite obviously the case that having 90% non-emitting power requires having ten times more clean power than dirty power. To find out how much new clean power you need, subtract the amount of dirty power you expect to shed from the current total, then multiply that number by ten (to get the total amount of clean power needed). Then, subtract the amount of existing clean power from that figure and you end up with how much new clean construction is required to meet the target. Barring rather significant reductions in the total amount of dirty power (significantly beyond the Ontario shutdown) it seems you need to build quite a lot of clean power, indeed.

    If you find a mathematical error, please let me know – either here or on my site.

  7. Here is a calculation using only your own figures:

    * 510 total terawatt-hours per year
    * 72% of those clean
    * 6500 MW of Ontario coal to be shed

    72% of 510 terawatt-hours is 367.2 terawatt-hours of clean electricity. That means 142.8 terawatt-hours of dirty energy.

    If you multiply 6500 MW of coal capacity by 8760 hours per year, you end up with 56.94 terawatt-hours per year from Ontario coal.

    Subtract that from the current total of 148.2 and you end up with 85.86 terawatt-hours of dirty energy after the Ontatio shutdown.

    With 85.86 terawatt-hours of dirty energy, you need 858.6 terawatt-hours of clean energy to reach a target of 90% clean.

    858.6 terawatt-hours minus the existing 367.2 terawatt-hours leaves you with the need for 491.4 terawatt-hours of new clean capacity, after the Ontario coal shutdown.

    Of course, you could also cut more existing dirty capacity, in keeping with the chart I posted earlier.

  8. Canada had 120 gigawatts of installed capacity in 2006. Saying we need to add 253 gigawatts of non-emitting power by 2020 suggest that our power capacity will have to increase 2.34 times.

    Given that between now and 2020 our electricity consumption is only expected to increase by 10 per cent, if that, then your analysis is deeply flaw. So back do my original comment: this isn’t about retaining fossil fuels at existing capacity and ramping up non-emitting sources to achieve 90 per cent. Rather, it’s about displacing that existing fossil fuel capacity with non-emitting source. This can be achieved with 12 gigawatts of nuclear capacity, or eight Areva ERP reactors.

  9. As someone pointed out on my site, there is a basic error in my calculations. To get a 90% non-emitting mix, you need nine times more clean energy than dirty – not ten.

    To repeat the key stage of the calculation above:

    With 85.86 terawatt-hours of dirty energy, you need 772.74 terawatt-hours of clean energy to reach a target of 90% clean.

    772.74 terawatt-hours minus the existing 367.2 terawatt-hours leaves you with the need for 405.54 terawatt-hours of new clean capacity, after the Ontario coal shutdown.

    Any help in uncovering other errors of logic or calculation would be much appreciated. It is important to get this right.

  10. * Canada had 120 gigawatts of installed capacity in 2006.
    * electricity consumption is only expected to increase by 10 per cent
    * This can be achieved with 12 gigawatts of nuclear capacity

    If Canada has 120 gigawatts now, and 72% is clean, we have 86.4 clean gigawatts and 33.6 dirty ones.

    As calculated above, eliminating the Ontario coal plants removes a 6,500 megawatts (6.5 gigawatts). That cuts the dirty total down to 27.1 gigawatts.

    In order to have 120 gigawatts + 10% in 2020, we would need 132 GW total.

    Adding 12 gigawatts of nuclear to our current clean stock of 86.4 would give us 98.4 gigawatts of clean power. Along with the 27.1 gigawatts of remaining dirty plants, that would leave us with 125.5 gigawatts total.

    To get up to 132 GW, we would need 6.5 more gigawatts of something. If that something was clean, we would have 104.9 (86.4 + 12 + 6.5) gigawatts of clean power and 27.1 gigawatts of dirty power.

    104.9 gigawatts clean over 132 gigawatts total is only 79.5% clean, and just getting there means installing 6.5 more clean gigawatts, in addition to the 12 gigawatts of nuclear you mentioned.

  11. Put another way, if you want 132 gigawatts in 2020 in which 90% are non-emitting, you need 118.8 gigawatts of non-emitting capacity and 13.2 gigawatts of emitting capacity.

    Getting to that means cutting current emitting capacity by 20.4 gigawatts (60.7%) and increasing non-emitting capacity by 32.4 gigawatts (37.5%).

  12. You’re getting closer, but are still too high — but at least it’s a far cry from 253 gigawatts of additional clean power you originally suggested was needed. But you really need to stick with terawatt-hours or gigawatt-hours, because capacity is misleading. A 100 MW wind farm might produce 20 per cent of its capacity over a year, so the gigawatt-hours aren’t the same as a nuclear plant or biomass plant.

    I originally calculated that 60 terawatt-hours of non-emitting sources would be needed to displace emitting sources and reach the government’s 90-10 target by 2020. 60 terawatt-hours is what eight next-gen nuke reactors can put out in a year.

    To keep it simple, I originally did not calculate with 10 per cent expected power consumption growth. So that would require an additional 45 terawatt-hours, or six more reactors — for a total of 14 nuclear reactors (i.e. 7 two-unit plants).

    But to be honest, I didn’t add 10 per cent growth because I think much of that can be avoided through conservation and energy efficiency measures, given that on a per capita basis Canada is the least efficient country on the planet.

  13. Here is another chart I cooked up.

    It shows possible mixes of emitting and non-emitting power. In each case, the mixture is 90% non-emitting. What varies is the total amount of electricity produced. On the left is a scenario where 2020 electricity production is 150% of the current quantity (which is about 100 gigawatts). On the right is a scenario where electricity use is cut to 50% of the current level.

    The red and blue lines show how much dirty and clean power would be required in 2020, to produce any multiple of our current usage, across that range.

  14. I never meant to suggest we actually needed more than 200 gigawatts of new non-emitting capacity. I was simply saying that this is how much you would need to both (a) achieve the 90% target and (b) not scrap any of our existing emitting capacity.

    In your fourteen reactor scenario, what are the total number of emitting and non-emitting terawatt-hours you project for 2020?

  15. You’d need 505 terawatt-hours of clean versus 56 terawatt-hours of dirty in 2020.

    We currently have 398 terawatt-hours of clean. So my original point of increasing clean by 25 per cent still roughly holds.

  16. If you get 60 terawatt-hours from eight reactors, that means each is worth 7.5 terawatt-hours per year.

    Filling the 107 terawatt-hour gap from the 398 terawatt-hours of clean energy we have now to the 505 you project we will need would thus require 14.3 new nuclear reactors.

  17. * 505 terawatt-hours of clean versus 56 terawatt-hours of dirty in 2020

    561 terawatt-hours of total output in 2020 is equivalent to 64.04 gigawatts of installed capacity, operating 100% of the time:

    (561 terawatt-hours) / (365 * 24 hours) = 64041 MW = 64.04 GW

    or 80.05 gigawatts operating 80% of the time:

    (561 terawatt-hours) / (365 * 24 hours * 0.8) = 80051 MW = 80.05 GW

    or 128.08 gigawatts operating 50% of the time:

    (561 terawatt-hours) / (365 * 24 hours * 0.5) = 128082 = 128.08 GW

    You estimated our 2006 installed capacity at 120 gigawatts. What was the mean utilization of that capacity?

  18. There are two reasons to consider it:

    1) It lets us verify the plausibility of the terawatt-hour numbers. If the 2020 numbers seem to require much higher or lower capacity figures than the 2008 numbers, it suggests an error has been made.

    2) We actually built facilities with certain installed capacities and utilization levels. Knowing how many new power plants and wind farms are required is a matter of capacity and reliability of output.

  19. If both the 132 GW estimate for capacity in 2020 and the 561 terawatt-hour estimate are correct, the implied reliability of output is 48.51%:

    132 GW * (365 * 24 hours * 0.4851) = 561 terawatt-hours

  20. Milan: No powerplant has all of it’s energy used all the time. At peak load (sometime in the early afternoon) all powerplants are at their maximum daily load, but that isn’t the same as their total capacity. And in any case, they don’t maintain their maximum daily load for very long.

    Total capacity must always be far higher than total available power, even at peak load, just in case something goes wrong.

    So total capacity is a meaningless figure without a conversion figure (and that figure varies depending on what type of powerplant you’re using, and where the powerplant is located on the grid). The total in terawatt-hours is meaningful, because it already takes into account the total on-grid time + efficiency of each plant (ie, windfarms are only 15-30% efficient due to wind variability, and nuclear plants have long downtimes for maintenance).

    So you *have* to use terawatt-hours instead of gigawatts in your comparison.

  21. I have re-done the calculations using terawatt-hours of output, rather than installed capacity.

    As of 2006, Canada produced 583 terawatt-hours of electricity. Of that, 459.2 TWH (78.8%) came from non-emitting sources, and 123.8 TWH came from emitting sources.

    Here, then, are five different projections for how many TWH of emitting and non-emitting electricity would be required, for different percentage changes in total electricity usage:

    20% cut in usage:

    Total 2020 energy use (TWH) – 467.0
    Total emitting TWH – 46.7
    Total non-emitting TWH – 420.3
    Emitting TWH to be eliminated – 77.1
    Non-emitting TWH to be added – 296.5
    Number of 7.5 TWH nuclear reactors – 39.5

    10% cut in usage:

    Total 2020 energy use (TWH) – 525.3
    Total emitting TWH – 52.5
    Total non-emitting TWH – 472.8
    Emitting TWH to be eliminated – 71.3
    Non-emitting TWH to be added – 349.0
    Number of 7.5 TWH nuclear reactors – 46.5

    Constant usage:

    Total 2020 energy use (TWH) – 583.7
    Total emitting TWH – 58.4
    Total non-emitting TWH – 525.3
    Emitting TWH to be eliminated – 65.4
    Non-emitting TWH to be added – 401.5
    Number of 7.5 TWH nuclear reactors – 53.5

    10% rise in usage:

    Total 2020 energy use (TWH) – 642.1
    Total emitting TWH – 64.2
    Total non-emitting TWH – 577.9
    Emitting TWH to be eliminated – 59.6
    Non-emitting TWH to be added – 454.1
    Number of 7.5 TWH nuclear reactors – 60.5

    20% rise in usage:

    Total 2020 energy use (TWH) – 700.4
    Total emitting TWH – 70.0
    Total non-emitting TWH – 630.4
    Emitting TWH to be eliminated – 53.8
    Non-emitting TWH to be added – 506.6
    Number of 7.5 TWH nuclear reactors – 67.5

  22. There is, of course, a grievous error in the figures I just posted. The last two figures for each scenario were incorrectly calculated. Correctly done, they are:

    20% cut in usage:
    Non-emitting TWH to be added – -38.9 (negative)
    Number of 7.5 TWH nuclear reactors -5.2 (negative)

    10% cut in usage:
    Non-emitting TWH to be added – 13.6 (negative)
    Number of 7.5 TWH nuclear reactors – 1.8 (negative)

    Constant usage:
    Non-emitting TWH to be added – 66.1
    Number of 7.5 TWH nuclear reactors – 8.8

    10% rise in usage:
    Non-emitting TWH to be added – 118.7
    Number of 7.5 TWH nuclear reactors – 15.8

    20% rise in usage:
    Non-emitting TWH to be added – 171.2
    Number of 7.5 TWH nuclear reactors – 22.8

    My apologies for the slip-up.

  23. Maclean’s and Canadian Business magazines recently launched a series of online debates, called “Thinking the Unthinkables.” The second installment features CAPP president David Collyer and Pembina Institute Oil Sands Director Simon Dyer debating whether Canada’s Oil Sands are developing too quickly. There are some interesting arguments for both side…You can view the debates here:



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