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Canada well on its way to a renewable-energy future

Christopher Barrington-Leigh is assistant professor in the School of Environment at McGill University

In 2016, renewable energy surpassed coal as the largest source of installed power capacity in the world. China's carbon emissions peaked. The German upper house, the Bundesrat, voted to ban gasoline-powered cars by 2030. Vancouver chose to outlaw natural gas in new buildings by the same year.

These are among the many signs the world is moving toward kicking its carbon habit, possibly by mid-century – a shift that would represent the simplest way to combat climate change.

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Canada faces a paradox in this regard. We are a large country with many resources, a small population and we already produce 10 per cent of the world's hydro power, so you might think we could easily power ourselves with 100-per-cent renewable energy. On the other hand, most of our territory is not connected to electrical grids nor near population centres. In addition, we are energy hogs, in part owing to our need for heating and transportation that comes with a northern climate and dispersed population.

So far, the deployments of hydro, solar and wind energy in Canada have been made in the highest-yielding locations. It is natural for the low-hanging fruit to be picked first. What is next? Now that Justin Trudeau's government will ensure a uniform national carbon price, the question is, will it be just about tightening our belts or will it hasten a bountiful supply of renewable energy? This depends on an old puzzle in economics: Future renewable-power installations could either get cheaper, because we have learned from earlier practice and technology development, or they could get more expensive, since the best spots for steady wind, reliable solar and proximity to existing power distribution and population centres are already taken.

To answer this, a student and I mapped each province's remaining "low-hanging fruit" of renewables in the form of wind, solar, wave, tidal and some biomass energy. We compared this with total energy use, including electricity, transportation, heating and industrial production.

The bottom line: There is plenty of renewable-energy potential near current roads, power lines and population centres. Most of it is wind power, with plenty of hydro and solar as well. In fact, every province except Alberta and Ontario has a large surfeit – enough to be choosy about siting installations to minimize environmental side-effects.

Indeed, the boom and associated savings should be big enough to amply help workers and communities in transition.

For instance, were Newfoundland to develop the easily accessible part of its truly enormous wind resources and to export the power, it would generate an annual income of $200,000 a household.

While carbon pricing helps push this kind of investment, the market costs of building and of running wind and solar power are dropping, on their own, faster than policy is moving. That makes a shift to renewable power inevitable. By 2022, it will simply be cheaper to build and provide a gigawatt of wind power than the cheapest fossil-fuel alternative, and solar will be just behind. Because wind and solar are technologies, not fuels, their costs will continue to drop as time goes on.

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What about transportation, which still relies on liquid fuels? Our analysis assumes nearly complete electrification, a recently fanciful idea that is now already in motion. Electric cars have numerous advantages and are transforming the market faster than hybrids did.

They say if you want to know what the future will be like, you should look at what investments are being made today. Judging by the accelerating rate of private-sector wind and solar investment here and elsewhere, it seems for Canada this trend is unlikely to stop until all our energy needs are met by clean electricity.

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