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Canada’s Paris Agreement obligations means a herculean electrification effort

Andrew Rowe, Peter Wild and Bryson Robertson are with the 2060 Project at the University of Victoria's Institute for Integrated Energy Systems (IESVic), a collaboration with the UVic-led Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS).

As Canada's climate diplomats head to Bonn to haggle over how the Paris Agreement will be implemented, the head of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) bluntly stated our country is not living up to its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction promises. Our emissions are currently on track by 2030 to increase 14 per cent to 29 per cent above 1990 levels, the baseline year used by the European Union, which is set to meet its pledge of a 40-per-cent cut.

One big hurdle we face in meeting our goals is a lack of recognizing the herculean scale of new clean-electricity infrastructure required. We don't just need to replace fossil-fuel-fired generation and somehow achieve heroic efforts at energy efficiency and conservation, we also need a great deal more clean generation to permit the deep decarbonization of transport, heating and industry.

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Modelling work performed for Environment and Climate Change Canada and released last year in its Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Gas Development Strategy suggests that by 2050, to achieve a 65-per-cent reduction (on 2005 levels), between a doubling and quadrupling of clean-electricity generation is necessary. Most will come from hydro and nuclear because of their reliability, with a supporting role played by wind, which is intermittent but plentiful. Most other renewables only get cameos in these scenarios owing to their variability.

It's eye-popping stuff. At a minimum, it means building the equivalent of another electricity system. Saying that the ramifications for First Nations rights are significant is an understatement. But all this is not widely known.

This month's British Columbia Utilities Commission (BCUC) report on the controversial Site C hydroelectric dam highlights the gaps with familiarity about Paris Agreement obligations. The BCUC concludes that alternatives such as wind, cheap battery storage, aggressive demand-side management (reducing or shifting demand via such mechanisms as Uber-style dynamic pricing) and reopening the natural-gas-fired Burrard Generating Station, previously shuttered to reduce GHG emissions, were as good or better options.

BCUC also says electrification to prevent dangerous climate change should not be taken into account because of uncertainty over timing and magnitude. The commission rejects the federal findings of Environment and Climate Change Canada and projections produced in 2011 by Simon Fraser University environmental economist Mark Jaccard and his group that foresaw up to a similar doubling of demand by 2050 owing to deep decarbonization.

The BCUC report also overlooks the B.C. Climate Leadership Plan's projection of an increase of about half a Site C's worth of electricity annually and the City of Vancouver's forecast of a near doubling of electricity demand by mid-century for the same reasons. To put this in context, consider that Site C is projected to deliver just 5.1 terawatt hours annually, about a twelfth of current demand. So, we must ask: How many climate policy experts were invited by the BCUC to appear as technical witnesses?

Given these independent and similar estimates, we can no longer say that the magnitude of clean-electricity demand from deep decarbonization is unknown.

There is also less uncertainty over Paris pledge timing. An independent 2017 assessment of the City of Vancouver requirements needed to achieve emissions targets suggests restrictions on gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2025, and that fossil-fuel-burning boilers and furnaces could no longer be permitted from 2030 for new buildings.

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Eight years from now may feel like ages away, but for electricity system planners, it's effectively tomorrow.

The commission also rejects use of B.C.'s hydroelectricity to help Alberta's decarbonization efforts, meaning that the plan by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley's administration to build out wind turbines will likely have to depend on substantial backup capacity from natural gas plants, thus increasing GHG emissions.

Batteries can help ameliorate the problem of intermittency, but they can't solve it, and the minerals required to manufacture them come with their own substantial land footprint, carbon intensity and energy cost, in Canada and in the developing world.

None of this is to suggest that Site C must be built. There is no single path to deep decarbonization. For our work as climate and energy-system researchers to be trusted, we must be technology neutral. We have no formal opinion on Site C.

But no energy mix is pristine. All options have their drawbacks. We are on a fool's errand if we seek an energy mix that has no impact. We should be asking: What suite of options has the least impact?

To answer that, experts on climate and deep decarbonization need to be in the room.

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McKenna to push for coal phase-out at UN climate meeting (The Canadian Press)
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