At the COP26 conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada’s path to meet its climate targets includes a clean, net-zero electrical grid by 2035. We ask an expert to help us break down that ambition
As far as can’t-miss events of the year, the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow is, so far, claiming the crown. For two weeks world leaders, media and celebrities converged in Scotland to discuss the world’s greatest challenge: the climate crisis.
But sandwiched in between the political handshakes, who’s-who hobnobbing and Greta Thunberg sightings, a significant announcement by Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with potentially transformative repercussions for the country, went almost unremarked — for the second time.
“Canada is warming, on average, twice as quickly as the rest of the world,” said Trudeau in his national statement at COP26. Then, after noting his government’s commitment to 100 per cent zero-emission new vehicle sales by 2035, he added: “That is why Canada has set a goal of … establishing a net-zero emissions electricity grid” by the same date.
To be clear: Trudeau’s statement in and of itself is not new. The same clean, net-zero emissions electric grid pledge originally appeared in the Liberal Party’s 2021 election platform. What is notable now is that Trudeau has committed Canada to a campaign-trail promise in front of a global audience — a clear signal his government intends to follow-up.
Net-zero grids are a hard problem
To say this is an ambitious target is an understatement. Canada’s electrical grid is not nationally managed or integrated infrastructure. Each province and territory is responsible for operating and maintaining their local grids through a network of power generators and utilities. Provincials grids are not only segregated from each other at many points, but they can bleed into the United States, due to the interconnected north-south nature of the infrastructure.
“It’s a hard problem,” says Michael Powell, vice-president of government relations at the Canadian Electricity Association in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada. “The pathway to 2035 is challenging and I think it’s challenging in a bunch of ways. One is technical for maintaining existing base load power — so, power that runs even when the wind isn’t there, for example. The second piece is building out capacity and getting the things done in a way that is achievable and affordable. The third thing is squaring the circle on affordability and reliability: just making sure that the system works and it’s available when you need it.”
How, then, is the government planning to transition a fragmented power system that spans 9,306 kilometres breadth and 5,514 kilometres depth, directly produces 10.9 per cent of national annual greenhouse gas emissions in 13 years?
The Liberal’s clean grid plan
For the most part, the Liberal government’s plan for a clean, net-zero grid by 2035 relies on four pillars: partnerships, regulations, investments and incentives.
The Liberal’s strategy comprises of the following steps:
- Introduce a Clean Electricity Standard to achieve a 100 per cent net-zero emitting electricity system by 2035;
- Develop additional investment tax credits for a range of renewable energy and battery storage solutions;
- Create a Pan-Canadian Grid Council in partnership with provinces, territories, Indigenous peoples, the private sector, labour and civil society;
- Establish national standards, best practices, and incentives to promote infrastructure investments, smart grids, grid integration, and electricity sector innovation;
- Promote the lowest cost approaches to electricity system planning and development in Canada, while advancing competitiveness to sell more power to the United States and creating jobs.
Aspirational vs. achievable
At this stage, this entire clean, net-zero grid strategy is aspirational. But, already, 88 per cent of Canada’s grid is supported by non-emitting or low-emitting power generation sources.
Electric Autonomy reached out to Steven Guilbeault, minister of environment and climate change, for answers to questions about on the Liberal’s pledge. The department spokesperson declined to comment and referred Electric Autonomy to Natural Resources Canada. NRCan has not responded.
According to the most recent government data, 61 per cent of Canada’s electricity is generated by hydro plants, 15 per cent is nuclear, nine per cent from natural gas, eight per cent from coal, five per cent from wind and roughly one per cent each for solar and biomass.
“Canada’s electricity grid is already one of the cleanest in the world,” says Powell, who is an attendee at COP26. “But 2035 is a very short timeline. That’s 13 years from now, but, in our sector, that is a moment. There is no book that says, ‘This is how you get to net zero electricity by 2035.'”
On this uncharted road, Powell cites Canada’s victory in phasing out coal plants, with the last holdouts to be decommissioned over the next few years. That’s thanks in large part to the federal government’s carbon-pricing program implemented in 2019.
At the same time though, notes Powell, Canada did not sign on to be part of a global clean grid alliance based largely on solar energy, launched at COP26 this week by India and the UK.
Still, he believes the Liberal party’s proposed roadmap is feasible, providing the nation’s industries get behind it — along with government.
“The key thing is the zero, right? It’s not a 90 per cent or 95 per cent non-emitting grid,” says Powell. “The last few percentage points are going to be the hardest, they’ll be the most challenging because they’re the ones where you have the hottest day of the year or there’s an extra-low temperature.”
Historically, there has been a high level of resistance from some corporations to accept federally imposed “anti-polluting” legislation. Case in point: carbon pricing. And often the reluctance to transition away from high-emitting sources of energy varies based on location. Powell anticipates there will be similar hurdles to overcome with a net-zero grid pledge.
“To hit the nail on the head: there isn’t a national grid. And so really, what it will come down to on this target, in a way much more than it was with coal, is how you reflect on regional differences to get to net-zero,” says Powell.
Powell points to making considerations based jurisdictional needs. That includes some places having a lack of power generation options to others needing financial help to general education on why transitioning is essential.
“The key thing is rolling up our sleeves and get into work,” says Powell. “We’re raring to go as soon as Parliament resumes.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect the percentage of Canada’s energy that is generated by coal.