It’s Time for a Vision for Electricity in Canada

Manitoba Hydro’s Pointe de Bois Generating Station has been in service since 1911, and is still operating safely today. (Photo courtesy of Manitoba Hydro)
Manitoba Hydro’s Pointe de Bois Generating Station has been in service since 1911, and is still operating safely today. (Photo courtesy of Manitoba Hydro)


On March 25, I was honoured to participate in a roundtable discussion convened by National Geographic as part of its Great Energy Challenge initiative. Along with a group of academics, government officials, and representatives of industry and nongovernmental organizations, we tackled key questions about the role of natural gas in a low-carbon future.

What became obvious in our conversations was that considerations for natural gas form only a small part of a much broader dialogue about our shared energy future.  The country—and indeed North America as a whole—will need to make some important energy decisions in the very near future.

Our electricity infrastructure is replaced only very slowly—the life of a nuclear plant is 40 to 60 years, a coal plant operates for 50 or more years, and there are hydroelectric plants more than 100 years old operating today. With such a slow pace of turnover, it is easy to see how a decision made today will have an impact for decades.

And we’re at the crux of change in our electricity system:

  • Many electricity assets are approaching their end of life and must be replaced;
  • Developments in information technology and automation raise exciting possibilities for a reconfigured electrical grid;
  • Extreme weather reminds us of our reliance of critical electrical infrastructure; and,
  • Many stakeholders are advocating greater forms of regional integration in North America.

In response to these opportunities, I’m pleased to announce this week that the Canadian Electricity Association (CEA) is releasing a vision for the evolution of Canada’s electricity system between now and 2050.

Vision 2050 provides context for making decisions about electricity. Along with the lasting impact of the electricity decisions we make today, we must also consider the long lead time required for planning both refurbishment and new construction. It can take as much as 10 or even 15 years to secure approvals for the largest of projects. With a strong case to be made for the urgency of getting on with modernizing Canada’s electricity system, we do not have the luxury of many years to make decisions.

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Looking ahead, we know that most of our current electricity assets will have reached the end of their useful life and be in need of replacement or major upgrading by 2050. We also know substantial ongoing capital investment is underway at unprecedented levels and will continue for the foreseeable future – and this is just to maintain the reliability of what we have today.

So while it may seem that we have years to decide on the system we want, 2050 is closer than you may think. The decisions that Canada makes today, and over the next five to 10 years, will have a huge impact on what our system will look like in 2050.

So how do we get there?

We’re proposing practical and proactive strategies and actions that will renew the electricity system, deliver maximum value, and contribute to a lower-carbon economy. Vision 2050 includes four recommendations for governments, regulators, electricity companies, and the public in areas that are likely to produce the greatest transformations:

  1. innovation and customer management of energy;
  2. potential financial instruments for carbon reduction;
  3. electric vehicles; and
  4. collaboration across borders.

Vision 2050 is an opportunity to continue delivering what Canadians expect—reliability, affordability, and sustainability – and to also meet growing customer expectations with a more responsible and innovative electricity system. We need to act now if it is to be achievable by 2050.

It’s time to decide.

This post originally appeared on National Geographic’s, The Great Energy Challenge.

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