Canada’s bid to decarbonize its electricity system by mid-century will depend on better interconnections among provincial power grids, the Pembina Institute concludes in an issue paper released last month.
Ottawa has legislated a 2050 deadline to bring the country’s greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, and that effort includes a plan to generate 90% of electricity from emissions-free sources by 2030 and achieve a net-zero grid before 2050, the paper notes.
Even though the grid is already 81% non-emitting, carbon footprints vary widely between provinces that rely primarily on hydropower (British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and to some extent Ontario) and those that still depend on coal- or gas-fired power stations (Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia…and to some extent Ontario).
But “Canada needs a reliable, affordable, accessible, and emissions-free electricity grid that can support electrification of other sectors,” Pembina writes, and that system “requires assets and technologies that can provide reliable energy services and ensure the stability and security of the grid.”
The paper calls for a “portfolio of solutions” that includes renewable hydroelectric, wind, and solar production, energy efficiency, demand response strategies to match electricity demand to available supplies, a mix of current and future energy storage technologies, and “more transmission lines to connect provincial grids in a way that allows clean energy sources such as hydro, wind, and solar to work together at a large scale”.
While Canada had 33 interprovincial grid connections as of 2014, “more electricity flows between Canadian provinces and American states than between Canadian provinces,” with 37 power lines carrying 82,400 gigawatt-hours of electricity in both directions in 2016. But “to make the best use of the clean electricity resources available in each province, electricity grids between provinces should be connected,” Pembina writes. “Interties make it easy to share electricity between regions with different strengths, allowing renewable energy to be developed in areas with the best conditions and distributed elsewhere.”
That added flexibility will lower the costs of deep decarbonization, the paper says, particularly in a country where some jurisdictions have plentiful hydropower resources while others are rich in solar and wind.
The paper envisions an added role for the country’s existing hydro dams as storage capacity for solar- and wind-generated electricity.
“Wind and solar are among the cheapest sources of new electricity and are complemented by existing low-cost hydroelectricity,” it states. “In particular, reservoir-based and pumped hydro systems can store energy for long periods of time and dispatch it when needed in a way that batteries cannot,” making it easier for grids to integrate large amounts of wind, solar, and electrification.
“Canada’s best hydro resources are located in different provinces than those with the best wind and solar, and transmission lines can connect them in such a way that consumers in each province benefit.”
Applying the same approach to the North American grid could deliver system-wide benefits worth C$12.6 to $38 billion, Pembina says, citing the North American Renewable Integration Study [pdf] released earlier this year by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory.