The success of Canada’s climate plan hinges on speeding up renewable energy projects

As Russia thrusts energy security into the spotlight, ramping up hydropower can help Canada secure a resilient economic future

Canada hydropower climate plan
Photo courtesy of WaterPower Canada.

A global pandemic. Climate-change-fuelled extreme weather. And now a devastating war that is disrupting energy markets and sending prices soaring. These colliding realities are forcing us all to reconsider what the future might look like.

Within this context, the federal government has just released its first Emissions Reduction Plan. This plan charts a new course toward achieving Canada’s 2030 climate change target and will shape how we produce and use energy. The plan includes measures to decarbonize electricity so that 90% is from non-emitting resources by 2030 and that it reaches net-zero by 2035.

The Russia-Ukraine war has renewed a spotlight on the importance of energy security, but it has been decades since we’ve given much thought to energy security in Canada. How we define it has evolved. Historically, the emphasis has been on whether a country’s energy supply is affordable and uninterrupted. In the face of a rapidly warming planet, another criterion has been added and must be emphasized: is that energy also “clean”?

The European Union is now defining what 21st-century energy security looks like in real-time, as its member countries look to rapidly reduce reliance on Russian fossil fuel imports. This month, the REPowerEU plan was issued to eliminate two-thirds of Russian fossil gas imports within a year. Diversifying its suppliers, including by importing more liquefied natural gas from countries including Canada, is one pillar of the plan. (Canada recently announced it will boost oil and gas exports by around 5% to help the European energy crunch.) The other is an accelerated effort to reduce the use of fossil fuels in homes, buildings, industry and the power system. The EU will boost energy efficiency, increase electricity generation from renewable energy resources, electrify end-uses, increase green hydrogen production and use, and address infrastructure bottlenecks.

As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen put it, “The quicker we switch to renewables and hydrogen, combined with more energy efficiency, the quicker we will be truly independent and master our energy system.” In Germany, the EU’s largest economy, the government has committed 200 billion ($280 billion) to bring forward its goal to generate almost all the country’s electricity from renewable sources by 15 years, to 2035. 

What lesson might Canada take from this response to an acute and significant threat to energy security as 2030 fast approaches?

For starters, we should acknowledge our good fortune to have little exposure to Russian fossil fuels, with only minimal imports. (But even then, the significant role of fossil fuels in our energy system – meeting 80% of our needs today – means Canadian consumers are exposed to the price spike resulting from geopolitical conflict.)

The quicker we switch to renewables and hydrogen, combined with more energy efficiency, the quicker we will be truly independent and master our energy system.

-European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

As in Europe, a major contributor to Canadian “clean energy security” will increasingly come in the form of renewable electricity. On this front, Canada has a head start, with approximately double the share of renewable energy resources in our supply mix. Thanks to abundant hydropower, almost 70% of our electricity is renewable. 

So why is hydropower a key strategic advantage for Canada?

Canadian hydropower facilities produce ultra-low levels of greenhouse gases over their lifetimes thanks to our cold and well-oxygenated northern and boreal water bodies. 

It is an affordable source of clean energy. Canadian provinces with the highest share of hydropower in their electricity supply have the lowest electricity prices, making them attractive markets for new business expansions. For example, General Motors and South Korea’s Posco Chemical chose to build a US$400-million electric-vehicle battery plant in Quebec because of the province’s low-emitting, low-cost electricity. 

Hydropower is also secure, and available 24/7. Hydro-dominated provincial grids in Canada can play a similar role to that of countries like Norway and Switzerland, balancing their neighbour’s grid when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.

And there’s still much more that hydropower can offer to our future energy supply in every Canadian region. Whether through enhancing existing projects, or developing new ones, Canada could surpass the 100,000-megawatt mark of installed capacity by 2035 – a status held by only two other countries worldwide. 

The new Emissions Reduction Plan is the most comprehensive climate plan in Canada’s history. If it is to succeed, the federal government must ensure that new major clean-power projects that contribute to energy security can swiftly move from concept to proposal to steel-in-the ground. As the EU is doing, this requires identifying barriers and proposing measures to rapidly accelerate project roll-out. With hydropower expansion, achieving our emissions-reduction and energy-security goals is possible. But action must begin today. 

Patrick D. Bateman is the interim president of WaterPower Canada, the national trade association for the hydropower industry.

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