Clean Energy Canada | Media Brief: Addressing common myths around renewable power
November 2, 2023

Clean Energy Canada is a clean energy think tank at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University. Through media briefs, we aim to provide useful factual and contextual information related to Canada’s clean energy transition. Please use this as a resource, and let us know if there are any topics that you would like to see for future media briefs. 

Global renewable power generation is growing at an unprecedented rate, driven by  the favourable economics of wind and solar along with energy security concerns around oil and gas (largely caused by recent wars), and emissions goals. So much so that new analysis suggests global emissions from electricity generation may peak this year due to a surge in wind and solar power.

Canada’s hydropower-rich grid is 84% non-emitting with variable renewables (essentially wind and solar) currently making up 7% of the country’s total electricity generation. However, the Canada Energy Regulator projects that this would rise to between 33% and 37% of electricity generation in 2050 in a net-zero 2050. With studies indicating that Canadian power demand could double between now and 2050, the federal government recently proposed the Clean Electricity Regulations to help ensure that Canada’s power system remains both clean and affordable in the years ahead. Renewable power, including variable renewables, will clearly have a big role to play in Canada’s energy future, but its use has faced criticism that is often based on inaccurate or misleading information.

The following brief breaks down some of the common misconceptions about the use of variable renewable power in Canada and around the world.

Myth 1: “Renewables can contribute only a small share of grid electricity because they only work when the wind blows and the sun shines”

  • It’s true that wind and solar are variable resources that provide most power to the grid when the sun shines or the wind blows. However, solutions are available to complement variable resources, from stronger grids and interconnections to demand-side measures (such as the smart charging of electric vehicles and industrial demand response), affordable storage, and dispatchable power supply. These options can enable relatively high shares of wind and solar on a grid.
  • A look at other countries around the world offers plenty of examples of current wind and solar shares that are much higher than Canada’s today, with some even higher than the 33% to 37% that the Canada Energy Regulator projects for a Canadian net-zero future.

    • Wind and solar accounted for 61% of electricity generated in Denmark in 2022. Other countries with relatively high shares of wind and solar include Uruguay (36%), Ireland (34%), Germany and the Netherlands (32% each), the U.K. (29%), Chile (28%), and Australia (26%).
    • Regionally, the EU-wide average share of electricity generated from wind and solar in 2022 was 22%. In May 2023, wind and solar produced more electricity than fossil fuels in the European Union for the first full month on record. Almost a third of the EU’s electricity that month was generated from wind and solar (31%), while fossil fuels generated a record low of 27%.
    • The average in the G7 was 15%, just above the global average of 12%.
    • South of the border, the U.S. has a share of 15%, although with great state-level variation. Over a third of all U.S. states (18) generated more than 20% of electricity from wind and solar in 2022. The U.S. states with the highest shares were Iowa (63%) and South Dakota (55%). Others with relatively high shares include major states like California (34%) and Texas (26%).

  • A 2022 assessment of the potential to add variable renewables to Canada’s electricity system found that an average renewables penetration rate of 54% could be realized, with even higher shares possible under certain measures.

Myth 2: “Renewables are expensive, and the cost of energy storage required to support renewables is prohibitive”

  • A recent Clean Energy Canada report, A Renewables Powerhouse, found that electricity from wind and solar is already cost-competitive with natural gas generation in Ontario and Alberta (the two provinces studied), with even more cost reductions on the horizon.

    • When Canada’s carbon price is also included, both wind and solar are significantly cheaper than natural gas already today.

line graph showing ontario levelized cost of energy for wind, solar, and gas
line graph showing Alberta levelized cost of energy for wind, solar, and gas

  • Analyses for the U.S. from Lazard and the Energy Information Administration show similar results. Both find wind and solar to be cost-competitive with natural gas-fired electricity in the U.S. even without a carbon price.
  • That said, lower costs alone are only part of the equation. Wind and solar are variable resources, meaning they provide most power to the grid when the sun shines or the wind blows. As costs continue to fall, there are a number of ways to complement the variability of wind and solar, including energy storage and increased transmission capacity.
  • Our recent report found that, even when the costs of battery storage are included, both wind and solar are cost-competitive in many scenarios in the two provinces studied.
line graph showing ontario levelized cost of renewables + energy storage
line graph showing Alberta levelized cost of energy for wind, solar, and gas

  • Again, results for the U.S. are comparable, where estimates show that variable renewables plus storage can be cost-competitive with natural gas-fired electricity.
  • As energy storage costs continue to fall, variable renewables are expected to become even more cost-competitive with electricity from natural gas. For example, analysis from BloombergNEF shows a near-80% decline in lithium-ion battery prices over the last 10 years across applications ranging from vehicles to stationary storage. Looking ahead, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory projects utility-scale lithium-ion battery storage costs to potentially halve over this decade, with continued cost declines through 2050.
bar graph showing declining battery costs (while observed costs since at least 2013 have consistently been lower than forecasted costs)

  • Apart from providing low-cost electricity, renewables can also help the communities in which they are located. New analysis found that some southern Alberta municipalities receive a substantial amount of tax revenues from wind and solar projects, some as high as 50%.
  • Our recent report found that, even when the costs of battery storage are included, both wind and solar are cost-competitive in many scenarios in the two provinces studied.

Myth 3: “Electricity from renewables is not clean when you consider the resources required to produce solar panels and wind turbines”

  • Studies by some of the world’s most reputable energy institutions have shown that the greenhouse gas emissions of electricity generation from variable renewables like wind and solar are considerably lower than power from natural gas and coal:

    • The U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory conducted a comprehensive review of around 3,000 life-cycle assessment studies on utility-scale electricity generation from various energy sources. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cited this work in a special report on renewables, and NREL recently updated its review. A full life-cycle assessment covers all stages of electricity generation, from resource extraction and power plant construction to operation and eventually decommissioning and recycling or disposal.
    • The NREL review showed that total life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from solar, wind, and nuclear are considerably lower and less variable than those from natural gas and coal. Specifically, the median total life-cycle emissions from natural gas power is almost 40 times that of wind and more than 10 times that of solar. Previous review studies found similar results.

bar graph of median life cycle emissions of each technology

Myth 4: “Renewables are not clean when you account for the equipment waste they generate at their end of life”

  • Research that specifically looked at waste from solar panels shows that 35 years of global projected cumulative solar panel waste is dwarfed by the waste generated by fossil fuel energy and other common waste streams.

    • For example, if there was no transition to renewable energy sources, coal ash and oily sludge waste generated from fossil fuel energy would be 300 to 800 times and 2 to 5 times larger, respectively, than solar panel waste by 2050. In other words, waste from solar electricity is significantly lower than that from fossil fuels.

  • Although some 85% to 90% of the mass of a wind turbine and solar panel can be reused or recycled, most decommissioned solar modules and blade waste in Canada are currently directed to landfills or are being stored pending future recycling options, according to a 2021 report.
  • However, numerous policy tools are available to minimize waste generation and encourage circularity of materials from renewables equipment, including targeted end-of-life regulations, extended producer responsibility, eco-design regulations, labelling and certification, and binding and measurable recovery and recycling targets. Indeed, some provinces, like B.C. and Alberta, have already begun advancing their solar panel recycling efforts in recent years.
  • Analysts expect rising energy costs, improved recycling technology, and government regulation to increase recycling rates. In fact, the recycling market for solar panels alone is projected to be worth US$2.7 billion globally by 2030, up from only US$170 million last year.

Myth 5: “Renewables technology is not ready”

  • The International Energy Agency attests that solar and wind are “well established and readily available” today. In fact, renewables are set to contribute 80% of new power capacity worldwide between now and 2030 under current policies, with solar alone accounting for more than half.
  • Solar deployment has seen exceptional growth in recent years, with global installed capacity poised to surpass that of coal by 2027. Earlier this year, the International Energy Agency projected global spending on solar power in 2023 to exceed US$380 billion, for the first time surpassing worldwide investment in oil production (US$370 billion). At the current rate, global growth in solar generation is on track with what’s needed from this technology to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency.
  • Onshore wind is a “proven, mature technology with an extensive global supply chain,” according to the International Energy Agency. Meanwhile, offshore wind is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years as deploying turbines at sea takes advantage of stronger winds.
  • In fact, the rapid deployment of solar and wind in the past few years has exceeded expectations, driven by energy security concerns and new global policies, leading to significant upward revisions of the International Energy Agency’s renewable power forecasts. The agency’s latest world energy outlook similarly highlights how projections for solar and wind generation to 2030 have increased substantially in successive editions of the outlook since 2019.

Myth 6: “Renewables may work elsewhere but are not suited to Canada”

  • A 2021 study analyzed the ability of solar and wind to meet electricity demand in over 40 countries and ranked Canada second.
  • Earlier analysis similarly found significant potential for variable renewables like wind and solar across Canada. Highlights include on-shore wind potential in Newfoundland and Labrador and Saskatchewan, off-shore wind potential in B.C. and Ontario, and solar potential in Ontario and the Prairies.
  • Atlantic Canada is home to some of the best wind power resources in the world, with a recent study pointing out that “offshore wind could be for Atlantic Canada what oil was to Texas or hydro power to Quebec.” 
  • Also according to the federal government, parts of southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba have been shown to have high solar power potential.
  • In fact, Canada’s hydro-dominated electricity network is well-suited to complement the integration of significant shares of wind and solar. Analysis from 2022 found that Canada could see variable renewables reach a penetration rate of 54% across the country on average, with even higher rates possible when adding demand-side measures.
  • In addition, Canada has “tremendous potential for pumped-storage hydropower,” with more than 8,000 GW identified at almost 1,200 sites, according to WaterPower Canada.