When evaluating whether to forge ahead with the Site C hydroelectric project, we need to consider the low-carbon energy system we’ll need in the future.

Managing carbon emissions to mitigate climate change sometimes makes me think of poor Sisyphus moving his rock. But then I think that Sisyphus had it easy – the carbon challenge is that big. Carbon emissions are a problem that connects the past and the present with the future.

For those who practice science, predicting the future involves physics and math. The general method is simple: we have a model of the physical behaviour, we give it the appropriate characteristics to represent the problem in question, and then we solve our model to find out how the future compares with the past and the present. For well-understood phenomena, the predictions are sufficiently accurate to satisfy the risks that come with uncertainty. Others are free to criticize our models and, in doing so, will often point out the most fictitious assumptions as places for improvement. A seasoned practitioner knows models are imperfect, and will test the assumptions to determine how sensitive the results are to simplification and limited knowledge. This approach is scientifically sound, and is the basis for how most planning which involves risk is performed.

How does this relate to current issues with energy system planning and the need to mitigate climate change?

One general strategy for decarbonization is electrification, which means building clean electrical systems and broadly electrifying energy services where possible. This may be directly, such as vehicles using batteries that must be charged using electricity, or indirectly, such as using electricity to generate synthetic fuels like hydrogen or methane. In this way, we can satisfy varying demands for work, heat, and cooling. This is a strategy Canada can embrace. On a national basis, Canada’s reliable, clean and low-cost electrical systems are the envy of many. It is difficult to know exactly what the future will bring, but using clean electricity in place of fossil fuels has a high probability of increasing electricity demand significantly, and thereby producing the technologies needed to deliver it. Building large, long-living clean energy infrastructure is motivated by a regard toward the future, and predicting the complex world of energy systems is not easy. When it involves technologies we know well (the ones where all we see are the warts) versus those of the future (the ones with perfect teeth), we have to take care to balance science and fiction in our assumptions.

An example of low-carbon energy infrastructure is the $8.8-billion Site C hydroelectric project in British Columbia. We could find a number of reasons to not build something like Site C – there are other options, as a recent report suggested. Arguments that rest on not wanting to spend the money, or being against the idea of the reservoir, are one thing. But suggesting we don’t need Site C is a different story.

We may not need Site C based on our current energy needs, but what about our future needs? What is the strategy to reduce carbon in the economy? If we are serious about reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and we believe in the strategy of relying on clean electrical systems, then we will likely need every electron, as well as the flexibility, that Site C represents.

Whether you want to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5⁰ or 2⁰ C over pre-industrial levels, we need to make massive change and we need to do it quickly. Site C is not just an energy supply, it is an energy system management option and, with other flexible, low-carbon generators, it is a tool to drive carbon reductions across the economy.

Opposition to Site C is understandable, but we need to analyse carefully the implications of not proceeding with it, when we are thinking about carbon management. While other renewables can and should be exploited to provide energy services, it is problematic to argue that as solutions solar and wind are cheaper than Site C. It is problematic because it is an apples-to-oranges comparison. In order for solar or wind to provide a service that is equivalent to Site C, they must provide similar energy production, be able to determine when the energy is delivered, and be able to rapidly adapt output over varying periods to balance the system. The need for flexibility is a primary concern for any future electrical systems. The only way solar or wind can be equated directly with Site C is to include it in a portfolio of technologies.

We can and will find ways to provide low-carbon energy services other than the Site C hydroelectric project. However, as science has shown, when it comes to energy systems, there is no free lunch. In considering those ways, we must ask: Are we going to make it easier or harder to position the energy system for the future? Ultimately, we need to deploy every tool possible to move this rock that is GHG emissions, and Site C could be an important lever.

Photo : The Site C Dam location is seen along the Peace River in Fort St. John, B.C., Tuesday, April 18, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

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