Huge investments needed to reach net zero: experts

CALGARY – The price tag is tens or hundreds of billions of dollars and the project scope is similar to the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in the 1800s.

That’s the size of the massive investment in Canada’s electricity grid that experts say will be required in the near future, as the phasing out of fossil fuel-based electricity generation combines with a rapid increase in electricity generation. Electricity demand poses unprecedented demands. on the electricity grid of this country.

“The general consensus is that we will need to double or triple the size of our electricity system between now and 2050,” said Bruce Lourie, president of the nonprofit advisory group The Transition Accelerator.

“I don’t think Canadians … are realizing or preparing for the enormous task that lies ahead of us.”

The federal government, in its emissions reduction plan announced last week, describes the need for “nation-building” intercity transmission lines if Canada is to meet its climate goal of cutting 40 % emissions below 2005 levels by 2030, and net zero emissions by 2050.

Canada already has one of the cleanest electricity grids in the world, with more than 80% produced using zero-emission sources. But to slow the pace of climate change, more electrification – everything from vehicles to heating and cooling of buildings to various industrial processes – will be required. bridge. And not only will the country need more electricity, but more will need to come from zero-emission sources.

One way to do that is to build new power transmission lines that can move renewable energy from jurisdictions like Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia – which have large supplies of clean hydro – to jurisdictions such as Alberta, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, which all still depend on fossil fuels for power generation.

But it is not a simple task. In Canada, electricity is under provincial jurisdiction, and each province’s system has evolved independently of the rest. For example, Alberta has a completely deregulated electricity market, while electricity in the vicinity of BC is produced and sold by a Crown corporation.

“The provinces, the Crown corporations and the power companies all have to agree on this,” says Lourie. “At the end of the day, politicians will have to sit down and sort these things out.”

The federal government has committed $25 million to help proponents begin developing net zero electricity hubs in the area. Ottawa has said it wants to “lead engagement” across Atlantic Canada for the proposed Atlantic Loop initiative, which would connect Nova Scotia and New Brunswick with clean hydro from Quebec and Newfoundland.

But much more work will be needed to make the Atlantic, or any other inter-regional project, a reality. Not only are new transmissions expensive (Lourie estimates creating a true east-west system between countries in the region across Canada could cost as much as $100 billion), they tend to be controversial. – often attract opposition from local residents and other interest groups.

For example, voters in Maine recently turned down a $1 billion power transmission line that was planned to carry electricity across their state from Hydro-Québec’s grid to Massachusetts.

“It’s a pretty narrow group of people who don’t want power lines running through their state, but it means we’ll have greater costs and more difficulty in meeting our climate goals as a result of campaigns. hey,” said Lourie.

Binnu Jeyakumar, clean energy director for the Pembina Environmental Research Institute, said Canada’s political leaders must start working on building support for these types of projects now.

“Transmission projects, we see them as a timeframe that is about a decade long. And we certainly don’t have that kind of timeframe. We need immediate solutions,” she said.

But Jeyakumar said change could happen quickly, if governments send the right market signals. She points to what has happened in Alberta, which is expected to shut down coal power entirely next year after the provincial government pledged in 2015 to phase out coal power by 2030.

She said the federal government’s promised Clean Power Standard, to support the off-grid grid by 2035, would send another clear signal to investors and would encourage spending on electricity. grid upgrading and associated projects.

“What this is going to do is give the carrots and sticks a leg up to ensure the net decarbonises,” says Jeyakumar. “This is how policy can really have an impact.”

While electrical infrastructure may not be as eye-catching as a shiny new Tesla or an advanced solar farm, Jeyakumar says other efforts at decarbonization will fail if we don’t. build a grid that can support them.

“It’s one of the fundamental building blocks that needs to be changed so we can see all kinds of solar and electric vehicle projects on the road,” she said.

This Canadian Press report was first published on April 5, 2022.

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