A novel way to make Canada’s electrical grid cleaner and cheaper

Photo by: Don McCullough

“Climate Leaders Don’t Build Pipelines” read the banner hoisted by protesters on Parliament Hill last week.

The protest—which led to the detention and citation of 99 people—was aimed at raising the profile of upcoming federal decisions on pipeline proposals.

It worked as intended, generating plenty of debate about what we should not build in Canada. But while that is a crucial national conversation, the heated pipeline debate sometimes means we pay a lot less attention to the kinds of things we should build in Canada if we’re serious about reducing carbon emissions.

So what should we build to accelerate clean growth in Canada? It’s actually another kind of line: power lines. More specifically, interprovincial power lines to optimize our electricity system, both economically and environmentally.

A small but significant step toward doing just that was recently made by Ontario and Quebec, when premiers Kathleen Wynne and Philippe Couillard announced a new seven-year agreement to purchase electricity.

The amount of hydroelectric power that will flow from Quebec to Ontario each year is enough to power a city with nearly a quarter million people. And because this clean electricity will be replacing natural-gas-fired power, it will cut one million tonnes of carbon pollution. It will also save Ontario ratepayers about $10 million per year.

When you dive into the details, the significance is even greater than the top-line numbers suggest. Under the agreement, Ontario will store some of its surplus electricity—much of which comes from wind power generation—at Hydro Quebec facilities. So rather than selling off this surplus power (often at a loss), Ontario will now take advantage of the storage offered by Quebec’s hydro reservoirs. In essence, they will serve as big batteries.

This isn’t entirely novel. Similar agreements—aimed at boosting renewable power supply by integrating electricity systems across borders—exist between Manitoba and Minnesota, Norway and Germany, and are currently being explored between Japan, China, South Korea and Russia. But it is the first such agreement between Canadian provinces.

It’s a precedent that can—and should—be built upon to a much larger scale within Canada.

Take Alberta and Saskatchewan. While both provinces have set laudable targets for increasing the share of renewable power on their grids over the coming decades, they’re still burning fossil fuels for power. But they both neighbour provinces—B.C. and Manitoba—that generate ample hydropower. Through greater integration of their grids, these provinces could cut more carbon pollution faster and gain access to lower-cost electricity. Why always build for yourself what you can buy from others?

By avoiding an unnecessary overbuild of power generation to meet peak demand, this kind of optimization can also help reduce costs. The Ontario and Quebec agreement will see the provinces swap 500 megawatts of power annually, taking advantage of differences in seasonal demand. Quebecers consume more power in the winter for home heating, while Ontario’s peak demand occurs in summer for cooling. Similar benefits can also accrue elsewhere as you move across Canada’s time zones.

The Ontario-Quebec agreement offers a small glimpse of this, but it hints at the larger opportunity. As our energy system increasingly switches from fossil fuels to clean power, we will need both more renewable energy supply and greater integration of our power grids.

This integration will require new power transmission lines, but who pays for them is always a sticking point between provinces. This is where the federal government can play an important role. In the last federal budget, Natural Resources Canada was allocated $2.5 million over the next two years to study regional clean energy cooperation, with the aim of identifying “the most promising electricity infrastructure projects with the potential to achieve significant greenhouse gas reductions.”

The federal government’s economic update reiterated that interprovincial power lines could be a strategic opportunity for federal green infrastructure investment—and Canadians agree. In a recent poll conducted by Nanos Research and commissioned by Clean Energy Canada, 82% of respondents said the federal government should help provinces use more clean power. With the promise of federal investment, the often rocky discussion between provinces about electricity system integration might just become a bit smoother.

Canada’s climate conversation can’t just be about what we’re going to cut. It has to also be about what we’re going to build. New interprovincial power lines could prove key to delivering clean power, and clean growth, across the country.

This article was co-authored by senior policy advisor Sarah Petrevan and originally appeared in Canadian Business.

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