Zero-emissions study leaves out North over modelling issues


A major study by the David Suzuki Foundation that states “100-percent zero-emissions electricity is possible in Canada by 2035” left out the North as its model would not work there.

The foundation’s report – Shifting Power: Zero-Emissions Electricity Across Canada by 2035 – was published on Wednesday. Using mostly wind or solar power in a decade’s time is possible, affordable and would be reliable, the report asserts.

Reaching a net-zero electricity grid by 2035 has been a stated goal of the federal government since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced it at the COP26 climate conference. The David Suzuki Foundation report is one of the first to contemplate in detail how that might be achieved.

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However, both the federal target and this week’s report dance around a problem: the North.

The federal target’s wording refers to “achieving a net-zero electricity grid,” a phrase that could be taken to leave out the NWT, which isn’t on the Canada-wide grid, has no real grid of its own and, in many communities, relies heavily on diesel generation. As for the report, while its title and many of its statements suggest the entirety of Canada is being considered, no northern territory is mentioned once in its 78 pages.

Stephen Thomas, who authored the report alongside Tom Green, acknowledged the targets stated in the report exclude the territories – though Thomas did say he believed “nearly-zero emissions electricity by 2035 is also possible in the North.”

Thomas said the report focused only on the 10 southern provinces “because that’s what our model could do.”

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“We use an electricity system model that is really good at digging into what’s happening in the electricity system across thousands of grid points, across Canada. But that only models the connected grid between the 10 provinces south of 60,” he told Cabin Radio.

“That’s not at all to say that the energy transition, energy sovereignty, and specific solutions to these problems aren’t absolutely crucial in the North as well. We just think that’s a different problem to solve.”

The foundation is not planning any separate report on northern Canadian electricity generation. Thomas said “others already are doing great work in thinking about and addressing the energy transition in the North … We partner with others and support their work, but we don’t have plans to do a similar report.”

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Target requires huge shift to wind

Even in the south, the foundation declared, “the scale of transformation is daunting” to reach zero-emissions electricity across 10 provinces in 13 years’ time.

“It would require an average annual build-out of wind and solar electricity projects never before seen in Canada,” the foundation stated, including a graph that shows wind generation multiplying by 10 – from 13,000 MW in 2018 to 135,000 MW in 2035 – to meet that target.

“An average of more than 2,200 new four-MW wind turbines would be installed every year and more than 160 new 10-MW solar farms would be built each year,” the foundation imagines in its preferred solution to Canada’s energy needs. (The NWT presently has one wind farm of note, at the Diavik diamond mine, and is in the process of erecting one wind turbine near Inuvik.)

That kind of national shift would require building new wind and solar projects at five times Canada’s previous record rate, the report asserted.

But the foundation argues countries like Germany are already planning to add renewable power at “an equivalent rate” to that contemplated in its report.

“By 2025, the country expects to be adding 10 GW of wind annually, similar to what our modelling scenarios would require,” the foundation said of Germany.

The boldest scenario presented in the report is estimated to save 200 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually across Canada – a thousand times the current NWT reduction target.

“By 2035, we’re the first study in Canada to show that kind of target being possible,” said Thomas of the zero-emissions electricity goal.

“Wind and solar are very available in Canada and they are the cheapest form of electricity. That, you can put on the grid today. Paired with the existing hydroelectricity, things like energy storage, energy efficiency, and more transmission between provinces come together to make a reliable and affordable electricity system.

“We think this pathway is very possible.”

The study is not exhaustive and is not presented as such. For example, offshore wind, green hydrogen, and the interplay between Canadian and US energy grids are either not modelled at all or included in rudimentary fashion. The territories aren’t the only areas ignored: any remote grid not connected to the broader Canadian grid is considered “out of scope.”

The cost? $560 billion to pursue the boldest option, the foundation stated. That’s the equivalent of around 500 Taltson hydro expansions, from an NWT point of view, and the federal government has yet to find the cash for even one – though it says it’s close. Another way to look at it: the federal government expects to have an income of around $409 billion in 2022-23, so this switch would cost much more than an entire year of federal revenue.

But that kind of transformative shift in investment is what’s required, the foundation and others argue, in the face of a climate crisis. Eventually, the foundation suggests, 75,000 or more clean-energy jobs would be created to replace jobs in industries that are phased out.

“The federal government needs to be very clear on how this rolls out, to get to zero emissions by 2035,” Thomas said.

“In terms of making this a reality in Canada,” he said, “it’s about jobs. It’s about investment in the renewable electricity sector, and it’s about policymakers coming together and collaborating.”