Risks on horizon 
require national plan

Despite being home to fewer than 35 million inhabitants, Canada is the world's seventh-largest generator of electricity, producing more than 570 terawatt hours annually.

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Until recently, its energy sector attracted little international attention, but this has changed as controversy has erupted over its exploitation of oil-rich sands in Alberta. This scrutiny of a process that emits large amounts of carbon is increasing pressure on Canada’s leaders to be seen to be promoting clean, sustainable sources of electricity. There has never been a greater need for Canada’s federal government to adopt a national energy strategy that includes a clear commitment to supporting renewable sources.

Canada’s clean energy legacy

While Canada has recently earned a reputation for carbon-intensive energy, the full picture shows a much greener electricity system, with hydro providing more than 60% of total power generation. If the amount generated by other non-emitting sources — described by the federal government to include nuclear, wind, solar, biomass and other non-hydro renewables — is added to the 60% hydro-electricity, Canada’s low-carbon power supply is already close to 77%. This is pretty good, however the federal government has set a target for 90% of electricity to be generated by non-emitting sources by 2020. Achieving this national goal will be essential if the government is to keep the international commitment it made in Copenhagen to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17% by 2020 (based on 2005 levels). With its huge coastlines, mountain passes and windswept prairies, Canada could technically achieve and even surpass its 90% clean-energy goal by deploying wind energy alone. But without a policy to encourage development, sustained expansion of the renewable-energy industry is far from certain.

How the federal government aims to ensure the target is achieved is not yet clear. It was instrumental in kick-starting the wind industry in the early 2000s by offering wind-power producers a C$0.01/kWh (US$0.01/kWh) production incentive for the first ten years of operation. This incentive has been credited with acting as a key factor in encouraging billions of dollars in investment, which in turn has led to supporting provincial policies resulting in the development of importance of electricity generators’ role in reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. Growth in wind and other renewables will be required to balance growing emissions from oil-sands extraction if Canada’s goal of cutting its greenhouse-gas emissions by 17% by 2020 is to be achieved.

Electricity storage

An effective national energy strategy should put a price on carbon emissions, which if set at an effective level would help drive deeper integration of wind and other renewables into Canadian energy markets. The strategy should also prioritise greater interconnection of provincial electricity markets, in particular strengthening the ties between those with a?current dependence on coal and those with huge?hydro reserves.

The strategy should also be designed to accelerate decision-making about further financial support for the innovation, commercialisation and integration of renewables. For example, the federal government could introduce a similar type of support that kick-started the wind industry, but this time focus incentives on enabling technologies, such as electricity storage. More than C$1.5 billion in federal funds was invested in supporting wind-energy production and the government has awarded close to C$1 billion in carbon capture and storage projects. These levels of investment would be appropriate for supporting electricity storage technologies, where project proposals already range from pumped hydro to underground compressed air.

With great uncertainty about wind project development beyond 2015, when many provincial programmes and policies will come to an end, the wind industry will begin to face headwinds soon.

The country’s regional diversity is one of its greatest challenges, but it can also be one of its greatest strengths. An increase in inter-provincial co-operation could be a key factor in integrating significant levels of wind power into an environmentally-sustainable national electricity system. The economic prize is huge and lasting, should Canada choose to embrace it.  

Tim Weis is director of renewable energy and efficiency policy for the Pembina Institute, a sustainable energy thinktank

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