October 23, 2023

Proposed net-zero grid rules unfit for realities of Canadian geography

The draft one-size-fits-all scheme unfairly threatens energy security in some provinces, while barely grazing others.

All Canadians are subject to the “fate of geography,” a series of outcomes and realities associated with where exactly one lives in the country. Waterways, mountains, valleys, sunlight, wind and proximity to oceans all factor into that fate.

The fate of geography determines recreation options and weather patterns, but also a vital aspect of our lives — our power systems. The geographic fate of British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec is well-suited to hydroelectric power, which doesn’t emit carbon. Alberta and Saskatchewan have been blessed with abundant natural gas and incredible sunlight hours.

Critically, because of these varied fates, each province faces a different reality of speed and opportunity in terms of decarbonizing its grid.

Each province may soon face the federal clean electricity regulations, the draft of which was published in August of this year. The aim of the tentative rules is important and necessary: to reduce emissions of our power sector over time.

Albertans and Alberta power producers are firm supporters of reducing emissions. Just look at our performance. Alberta leads the nation in renewable power installation: Alberta accounts for 77 per cent of the 1.8 gigawatts of solar and wind generation capacity added to the country last year, according to the Canadian Renewable Energy Association.

Alberta has also achieved a cut of more than 44 per cent to its emissions from electricity generation since 2005, primarily by virtually eliminating coal as a power source.

However, that success does not erase Alberta’s, or any other province’s, fate of geography which leads to a clear conclusion: a nation-wide, one-size-fits-all set of regulations to achieve a net-zero electricity grid by 2035 is simply not feasible.

A single national approach to emissions-free electricity generation would be akin to mandating that a certain crop be grown in all parts of the country. Our geography simply wouldn’t support growing wheat on the Canadian Shield any better than canola crops on Vancouver Island. Similarly, the draft clean electricity regulations are unrealistic for provinces that cannot rely upon hydro-electric power or have not already made significant investments in nuclear.

Canada needs an approach that reflects the fates of geography of its regions. As net-zero stands now, the provinces are at vastly different distances from the goal line. Quebec’s grid is already more than 99 per cent non-emitting and so is that of Manitoba. Alberta and Saskatchewan are both only 14 and 15 per cent, respectively. Nova Scotia is at 27 per cent. New Brunswick is at 73 per cent.

It is not practical or reasonable to expect some provinces to close such a large gap while others have so much less to do. This places unequal burdens across the country.

The clean electricity regulations, as drafted, won’t work practically or affordably. While many good proposals have been made about the finer details, the new rules will pose a risk to Canadian energy security. Analysis by the Alberta Electricity System Operator released last month indicated that the province’s electricity grid under the proposed clean electricity scheme would become less reliable and much more expensive.

Getting to net-zero by 2035 will require capital-intensive investment in a suite of technologies that aren’t economical, or don’t yet perform at the levels assumed by the draft regulations.

Implementation of the clean electricity regulations would most certainly result in costs rising disproportionately in some parts of the county compared to others and put some Canadians at risk of energy instability. These outcomes are not acceptable.

These are not realities just for Alberta. Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia face similar realities. New Brunswick has a significant gap to close. The Atlantic Loop dream, a project that would connect the grids of Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, seems to be struggling despite great intent. Even Ontario may struggle to get to net zero without the use of natural gas as a bridge to larger-scale nuclear and renewables.

The federal government has expressed that Alberta should not expect special treatment. I want to be clear: we don’t need a provincial carve-out and we are not asking for one.

Instead, we need an approach to electricity emissions that allows for pragmatic regional accommodation, with a common goal of net-zero by 2050.

The clean electricity regulations must reflect what is feasible and viable in each region, resulting in a framework where no part of the country is left disproportionately impacted by an arbitrary timeline. We are all at different starting points and have different solution sets. As long as each province is progressing strongly towards a net-zero electricity grid for 2050, we should call that a success.

Our experience as a nation shows that we are stronger together. We have historically created flexibility in the federation that allows for unique and regional differences. It’s time to do it again to ensure that all Canadians can have access to safe, clean, reliable and affordable energy for decades to come.

As appeared in the National Post.

Adam Legge is the president of the Business Council of Alberta.

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