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.