Canada’s electricity system will have to get bigger, cleaner, and smarter to help power the country’s net-zero transition, the Canadian Climate Institute concludes in a collection of three reports issued Wednesday.
The analysis calls for big changes in every aspect of the grid systems currently run by utilities at the provincial and territorial levels, CBC reports. It warns that failing to meet future demand could mean missing national climate targets and running the risk of brownouts.
“There could be challenges for reliability,” said report co-author and CCI senior researcher Caroline Lee. “That means outages and certain technical issues in our grids.”
Citing multiple past studies, the institute says a net-zero future will increase Canada’s electricity demand by 1.6 to 2.1 times by 2050—and to meet that demand, installed capacity will have to grow by 2.2 to 3.4 times. That will dictate a system with more battery storage and the flexibility to adjust to shifts in demand, as the country shifts personal vehicles and home heat from fuels to electricity.
“If we see more people… using electric vehicles, if we see more people switching toward electric heat pumps—and yet the systems are not well equipped to be able to manage that increased demand, as well as the timing of that demand—then there could be some real issues,” Lee told CBC.
To meet its definition of cleaner electricity demand, the CCI says Canada’s power utilities will have to add enough solar and wind capacity to meet 31 to 75% of demand, while retaining their current nuclear and hydropower resources. “Other technologies such as carbon capture, utilization, and storage applied to emitting generation, small modular reactors, hydrogen-fired electricity generation, and geothermal have significant potential, but their future role is more uncertain,” states the landing page for the report.
Smarter systems will also be a must, to meet variable needs for electricity and build a more resilient grid that is better able to withstand the impacts of climate change. That will mean calling on technologies like hydropower to deliver electricity on demand, improving the interconnections among grids, scaling up storage, and relying on “smart” technologies like vehicle-to-grid integration.
A summary report [pdf] that accompanies two longer analyses shows electricity almost completely replacing gasoline and natural gas for household energy use, rising from 23 to 96% of total demand between 2020 and 2050. It points to the massive and growing potential of Indigenous clean energy projects. And it presents recommendations for a new “electric federalism” that includes stronger national climate policies for the electricity sector, use of public funds to shield ratepayers from the cost of the transition, better provincial and territorial policies to transform the system, stronger coordination across all orders of government, and “sustained, predictable financial support” from Ottawa to provinces and territories.
While the challenges along the way will vary by province and region, with different options facing their own technological, social, political, or institutional barriers, the CCI says the rapid transformation it envisions “is both necessary and achievable,” technically and economically.
“The resulting systems can reliably and affordably power Canada’s economy,” the report states. “Moreover, because electricity underpins decarbonization across the economy, a broader transition to net-zero would be far more challenging absent a transformation of electricity systems.”