In August, the federal government published its vision for decarbonizing the electricity grid by 2035 “as a step toward achieving net-zero emissions across the economy by 2050.”
The current commitment builds on earlier ones, starting with Canada signing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. When that formally entered into force in 2005, the federal government released “Project Green,” a document summarizing its plans for meeting commitments under Kyoto.
These plans emphasized the importance of renewable energy “in Canada’s fight against climate change” and in “diversifying Canada’s energy mix and promoting sustainable economic growth.”
There is now near-universal agreement – thanks to declining costs and fast deployment – about the importance of switching to renewable energy to mitigate the negative impact of climate change. But in comparison with other similar countries, Canada is lagging behind in deploying renewables such as wind and especially solar energy.
Canada needs to immediately step up and adopt suitable policies to accelerate the process of building up solar and wind power while reducing its emphasis on, and funding for, continued fossil-fuel production and nuclear energy.
Figure 1 shows how electricity production has changed since 2005, as well as Canada’s shifting reliance on different sources of energy. The two main trends are the replacement of coal by natural gas as the dominant source of fossil-fueled power and a slow but still significant growth in wind power.
We do not include hydropower in figure 1. There is limited capacity to build large new dams – in part because of significant public opposition – and because hydro’s share of electricity production has increased by only two per cent since 2005.
Nuclear power is not included because its importance has also not changed significantly, in part because of high costs. For example, Ontario’s plans to build a new generation of reactors were abandoned in 2013 due to the estimated costs in 2009 being more than thrice the amount that the government had assumed.
The switch from coal to natural gas, as shown in figure 1, underlies the statement that accompanied the government’s August 2023 vision document about Canada’s “demonstrated ability to decarbonize its grids faster than many other countries.”
But when considering climate impacts, natural gas is no panacea. Although the combustion of natural gas releases less carbon dioxide than coal, the production and transport of natural gas are often accompanied by leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In addition, one study of natural gas and oil wells in British Columbia found that 10.8 per cent of those tested had reported leakage. A 2023 study finds that natural gas could contribute as much as coal to the negative impact of climate change if the leakage rates are above a few per cent. Adding carbon-capture-and-storage technologies into natural gas plants will not address these climate impacts.
The other trend noted in figure 1 – the increase in wind power – is significant but far less than what could have been the case if the country had exploited its full potential.
Further, solar energy remains an insignificant power source in Canada, supplying only 0.9 per cent of the total electricity generated in 2022. The paltry contribution flies in the face of rapidly declining costs for solar energy.
Utility-scale solar power has been the least costly option for new electricity in recent years. In 2020, the International Energy Agency dubbed solar “the new king” of the world’s electricity markets.
Being a northern country does reduce how much energy a solar panel generates, but by the end of 2022, Germany (where the latitude of Berlin is 52.5 degrees – farther north than Ottawa, Winnipeg or Calgary) had installed nearly 65 gigawatts of solar energy. Canada had around 4.4 gigawatts.
Canada also compares poorly with many other countries when it comes to solar and wind energy. To illustrate this, we compiled in figure 2 solar and wind capacities on a per-capita basis (to account for major differences in population) in four other countries.
Figure 2 shows Canada is significantly behind many other OECD countries. For example, the United States has 52 per cent more solar and wind capacity on a per-capita basis.
Our newsletter about the public service.
Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.
Australia, which is similar to Canada in its traditional reliance on fossil fuels, has a solar and wind per-capita capacity that is nearly thrice that of Canada. Sweden, which also has a large share of hydropower, also has more than three times that of Canada.
Finally, even China, which did not have to undertake any commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, has marginally more solar and wind capacity per capita than Canada.
It is clear that Canada needs to do more on renewable energy.
Currently, Canadian energy policy seems to have an “all-of-the-above” character. The federal government continues to invest in ways of maintaining fossil-fuel generation – for example by stressing carbon-capture-and-storage technologies, which have limited emissions-reduction potential.
It also funds unproven and expensive technologies such as small modular nuclear reactors. Such investments only prolong reliance on environmentally problematic natural gas and nuclear power technologies.
A sound energy strategy should start with significantly improving energy productivity and efficiency. But even if energy productivity and efficiency are increased, it will still be necessary to expand the energy supply as more sectors are electrified and the use of natural gas is phased out.
One frequent objection to renewables is their variability and the need for fossil-fuel backup. As Alberta Premier Danielle Smith put it: “How can I bring on additional wind and solar if I’m not able to secure the reliability of my power grid by being able to bring on natural gas peaker plants?”
This is a myth. It is quite possible to sustain a reliable electricity system based on renewable energy sources plus a combination of other means, including improved methods of energy management and storage. As Benjamin Sovacool argued more than a decade ago, harping on the variability of renewables is a rhetorical excuse, not a technical barrier.
The challenge to expanding renewables is primarily political, with provinces such as Alberta and Ontario resisting the shift away from their traditional sources of energy. This is unfortunate because these provinces have great potential to expand solar and wind energy. For example, Alberta is well-suited to solar energy, but its current government has paused development of new solar and wind power projects.
Last year, a study from the David Suzuki Foundation and the University of Victoria showed that Canada can indeed switch to an electricity sector fully based on renewable energy – provided appropriate policy measures are implemented.
These include terminating public financing for fossil-fuel projects, carbon capture and storage, and small modular nuclear reactors; improving energy efficiency; expanding new interprovincial and interregional transmission capacity; and above all prioritizing solar and wind as the primary sources of new electricity generation.
Canada has a special responsibility. The extent of climate change is strongly determined by the total or cumulative amount of carbon dioxide emitted, with 1850 often chosen as the start date for calculating the total. When these cumulative emissions for the period 1850-2021 from different countries are compared on a per-capita basis, Canada ranks among the two worst countries.
Thus, if we want to address climate change in an equitable way, countries such as Canada have to step up and reduce their emissions rapidly.