Canada’s power grid will need fundamental changes to help achieve net zero: report

Canada will need to make drastic changes to its electrical systems to meet rising demand, driven in part by the uptake of electric vehicles, according to a new report.

The report, released by Climate Canada on Wednesday, says significant changes are required in every aspect of regional and interregional power generation and distribution systems to meet future demand. Otherwise, there could be consequences ranging from not meeting our climate goals to declining energy.

“There may be reliability challenges,” said Caroline Lee, one of the report’s authors and a senior researcher at the institute that researches climate policy. “This means outages and some technical issues with our networks.”

The Liberal government has committed to aligning Canada’s electricity system with the country’s climate goals.

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But as other reports have warned, going forward, more power generation capacity will be required to displace current fossil fuel generation and meet growing demand while achieving net-zero targets. The federal government has set a deadline of 2035 to achieve net zero electricity generation. All new car sales must be zero-emissions by the same time.

The institute’s report – called The Big Switch, Powering Canada’s Net Zero Future – is based on multiple studies that show demand will double or triple what it is today by 2050. Up to 75 percent of this additional energy will need to come from wind and solar , if Canada is to meet its climate goals.

Caroline Lee is a senior researcher at the Canadian Climate Institute and one of the authors of the report, The Big Switch, Powering Canada’s Net Zero Future. (Michael Cole/CBC)

But it is not only the amount of electricity that needs to be increased; Wednesday’s report found that Canada’s electricity systems will also need more storage batteries and be smart enough to adapt to peak demand as both vehicles and many home heating systems switch to electric.

“If we see more people … using electric cars, if we see more people switching towards electric heat pumps – and yet the systems are not well equipped to be able to manage this increased demand, as well as the timing of that demand – then there could be Some real issues,” he told me.

Some early adopters know some of these issues firsthand. Kim Nelson, a film professor in Windsor, Ont., and her family can’t upgrade to a faster charger for their Chevy Volt because their street won’t be able to accommodate the extra load if their family and other families are also upgraded.

Watch | The challenges that a driver faces in charging her electric car portend future problems:

The demand for electric car drives needs changes in the power system

A new report indicates that the demand for electric vehicles could become a significant burden on the power system unless changes are made. 2:24

So it uses a slower level 1 charger. If the car battery runs out, it takes about three days to bring it back to a full charged state. Nelson, who loves her electric car, found alternative solutions. But it understands that poor charging infrastructure can stymie others who want to get rid of gas consumers.

She says different levels of government have a role to play in modernizing the country’s energy infrastructure and making sure neighborhoods can support car charging as fast as hers in nearly every lane.

“We will really rely on the government and make legislative choices to prioritize the transition to electrification and the transition to green energy, which is vital,” Nelson said. “We’re kind of stuck until those upgrades are made.

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the government is investing in clean energy generation, referring to the 2022 federal budget that proposed investing $677 million over five years. (Jeff Macintosh/The Canadian Press)

“So we hope that the government will take the lead in this matter.”

Electricity generation has traditionally been the prerogative of provinces, but the report states that the federal government must adopt a “widespread policy framework” within which provinces and territories will operate.

Ottawa recommends boosting the carbon price for the sector and banning the construction of gas-fired power plants.

The institute, through its report, also called on all levels of government not to burden taxpayers with the costs of helping the sector achieve net zero, saying that governments should bear these costs.

Furthermore, the report states that Ottawa should use the money and its ability to have prime ministers in one room to encourage cooperation across the sector.

“With the provinces acting on their own, there is a risk of some kind of slow action and uncoordinated action,” Lee said. “So we see a strong federal role sort of working in a coordinated way with the provinces to make sure everyone is moving in the same direction towards net zero.”

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the federal government is working to bring provincial and territorial leaders together. Wilkinson also refers to the 2022 federal budget that proposed investing $677 million over five years in clean electricity generation. Some of that money goes to help regions share the abundance of renewable energy in places where “there is scarcity,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson says the Atlantic Loop – a project that will bring energy from Newfoundland and Quebec to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – is a priority for him.

“There is a huge role for the federal government to play — respecting territorial jurisdiction, but looking forward to actually helping us build the electricity system we will need in the future,” Wilkinson said.

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