C2C Journal has been actively covering the government-driven campaign to force millions of electric vehicles (EV), “clean” and “green” energy sources and much lower greenhouse gas emissions upon a nation that is both reeling economically from the global disruptions following the Covid-19 pandemic and seemingly oblivious to the breathtaking costs and resulting impoverishment the “energy transition” to a “Net Zero” economy will foist upon Canadians. Recent C2C articles have catalogued the hidden costs of switching to EVs, the impending need to tax the currently “free” energy for EVs, the false promises surrounding wind and solar energy, and the folly of suppressing Canada’s oil and natural gas production or divesting of fossil fuel companies.
The following paper is lightly edited and adapted from the version originally prepared for the Coalition of Concerned Manufacturers and Businesses of Canada:
On March 8, 2022 the Government of Canada published a discussion paper entitled, A clean electricity standard in support of a net-zero electricity sector. Its stated purpose was “to send a clear signal that the Government of Canada intends to move forward with regulations to achieve a net-zero electricity system by 2035; to outline considerations related to this objective; and to solicit comments from Canadians regarding the scope and design of the [clean energy standard].”
The Coalition of Concerned Manufacturers and Businesses of Canada is a not-for-profit association that represents small- and medium-sized manufacturers and other businesses in Canada. The Coalition’s goal is to advance policies that promote economic growth and retain good jobs in Canada.
Hopes and Intentions Versus Physical Reality
Much of the current public discussion concerning future energy transitions is based on speculation about the timing, cost and pace of commercialization of new technologies. It would seem more prudent to base one’s judgments on what has actually happened in past energy transitions rather than try to predict the future.
The period from scientific discovery to widespread commercialization of technologies historically has been much longer than is currently estimated by advocates of rapid decarbonization. None of the steps in the innovation pathway – research, discovery, testing, demonstration, initial market development or widespread commercialization – operates according to a fixed or predictable – let alone a controllable – schedule.
Professor Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba is arguably the world’s foremost expert on energy transitions. Smil’s research has convincingly demonstrated that past transitions of primary energy sources (such as from wood and animal waste to coal, or from coal to crude oil and, more recently, natural gas) have been slow, painstaking and hard to predict. In our current era, existing technologies both for generation and consumption of electricity also have a lot of such inertia. Smil characterizes the belief that the changes in technology and infrastructure required to decarbonize the world can be achieved within a few decades as a “grand delusion.”
The Liberal government’s proposed clean energy standard (CES) appears premised on the view that, in the face of high market costs and barriers, governments can still force the pace of change and retain the support of the electorate in doing so. Outside of the centrally planned economies (such as Communist-era China or the former Soviet Union), however, no government has previously attempted to prescribe the timelines for commercialization of new technologies or the dates by which a large share of society’s needs must be met by a new technology. Until now. Despite its history of failures, “picking winners” appears to be an increasingly popular aspect of national industrial policy. Still, a prudent government should be hesitant about committing tens or even hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars to technologies that are not ready and cannot compete without permanent subsidies.
Beyond the steep financial cost, those who pursue the net-zero goal will be confronted with a number of physical barriers, including that hydrocarbons (including crude oil, natural gas and “liquids” such as propane and butane) are nature’s most efficient embodiment of primary energy. Their combination of high energy density, abundance, stability, safety, portability, safe storage and affordability is unmatched by any other source of energy. In fact, by one measure a single U.S. gallon of gasoline contains the energy-equivalent of 600 man-hours of physical labour. Governments cannot wish those advantages away.
The electricity sector offers good examples of the immense barriers to net zero. Just meeting the additional generation requirements needed to power the proposed conversion to electric vehicles (EV) would require a major expansion in the electricity generation capacity across Canada, conservatively estimated as the addition of 10,000 megawatts of capacity from today’s levels (other estimates range from a 20 percent to a 40 percent net increase of power generation – or anywhere from 27,000 to 54,000 megawatts). The provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and Alberta still have coal-fired capacity collectively totalling over 9,000 MW which will also require replacement, adding considerable additional costs. Further, the Government of Canada has already signalled that it will want natural gas-fired power phased out as well, adding another immense complication.
The two largest new power projects being built in Canada today, the Site C Dam on the upper Peace River in British Columbia and the recently completed Muskrat Falls Project in Labrador, have a combined design capacity of just 1,944 megawatts. To meet just the additional EV-related power demand, at least eight more projects of the same size would have to be built. All such proposals face enormous opposition, and it generally takes at least 15 to 20 years to bring such a project to production in Canada. There is none even being contemplated at this time.
Central to the vision on which the proposed CES is based is the thesis that in future Canada must rely primarily on wind and solar power generation for incremental supply, notwithstanding that these sources are intermittent, frequently unreliable, incredibly expensive, capital- and resource-inefficient, land-hungry and pose significant environmental problems of their own.
The Issue of Costs
The federal government’s discussion paper presents the transformation of Canada’s electrical energy system from one which is predominately reliant on low- or zero-carbon dioxide emissions to one that has virtually no carbon dioxide emissions as though this can be accomplished at low cost. Indeed, considerations of cost seem barely to enter into the presentation of facts. This is a highly unrealistic approach.
Canadians’ experience with efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electricity systems in Ontario and Alberta have already revealed the significant economy-damaging costs of seeking to increase reliance on wind, solar and biomass energy. In Ontario, electricity rates for consumers doubled over the past decade and, according to the Ontario Auditor-General’s report in 2015, the cost of the move to increased wind and solar energy will be $90 billion over the life of the existing contracts.
Those who have studied the experience of other countries that have sought to increase reliance on renewable energy sources for electricity generation (such as Spain, Germany and the UK) have found consistent patterns. These efforts bring about large increases in the actual prices that must be paid for electricity by consumers and businesses. Further, the price increases grow and accelerate as the percentage of electricity generated from intermittent renewables increases.
This is due to the need for large and increasing amounts of costly backup generating capacity and electricity storage – things that are needed much less in conventional mixed-source systems (hydro, coal, nuclear, natural gas and crude oil). Jurisdictions that increased generation from renewables up to as high as 30 percent of total electricity supply have seen an approximate tripling in the price of electricity to ratepayers, except where a large portion of the increased costs is off-loaded to taxpayers (a group which, in any event, largely overlaps with ratepayers).
Key Areas of Uncertainty
In the remainder of these comments, the Coalition will address four specific aspects of the proposed CES:
- The discussion paper’s treatment of energy technology pathways;
- Its proposal to minimize use of natural gas-fired generation;
- The cost of bulk electricity storage; and
- Issues related to transmission.
The widespread application of technology is touted in the discussion paper as a way to achieve “net-zero” electricity, under which wind turbines (onshore and offshore), solar (photovoltaic and concentrated), hydro and nuclear qualify as zero emissions (which, if true at all, applies solely to the electricity-generating phases of such projects’ life-cycles). The paper goes on to claim: “Low and non-emitting generation technologies are becoming more cost-competitive, [and] the pace of low-carbon electricity deployment must accelerate for Canada to reach NZ2035,” referring to the government’s stated goal of net-zero carbon emissions from the electricity sector by 2035.
The paper also opines favourably on possible new and purportedly zero-emission energy sources under development such as small modular nuclear reactors (SMR) and hydrogen fuel cells, as well as carbon capture to neutralize normally carbon-emitting energy sources. It also favours biomass (cogeneration and simple cycle) ahead of any form of natural gas generation.
Biomass – The treatment of biomass as low-emissions, however, flies in the face of reports from the UK where DRAX, one of the world’s largest biomass power plants, would rank third in the entire EU for emissions (but is exempt from being counted because biomass is classified as “renewable”), and also received more than £800 million in subsidies.
Solar – Solar photovoltaic is also a questionable source of energy in Canada, particularly during winter when days are short and the sun angle is lower. Where solar has been developed on a larger scale, it has cost more than estimated and produced considerably less power than forecast. The larger projects started in the Nevada desert have had many problems and the state remains dependent for over 60 percent of its electricity needs on natural gas plants. To overcome the innate intermittency of solar energy would also require storage, which would add considerably to its already-high costs.
Nuclear – SMR technology is progressing in many locations around the world but to date only a few such facilities are operating. Russia’s Akademik Lomonosov is the world’s first floating nuclear power plant and began operation in May 2020, producing energy from two 35 MW SMRs. China’s Huaneng Group Co.’s 200-megawatt unit 1 reactor at Shidao Bay is now feeding power to the grid in Shandong province, the China Nuclear Energy Association said in a December 2021 posting. Other SMRs are under construction or in the licensing stage in Argentina, Canada, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States. SMRs, depending on costs, appear to be a possible “net-zero” energy source before several others but are unlikely by themselves to meet the targets committed to by the Government of Canada at COP26.
Wind and Solar – These are touted as playing a “key role” in reducing the electricity sector’s emissions but accomplishing this will be very costly. This is demonstrated in Ontario, where prices more than doubled in less than 10 years as wind and solar rose to represent over 15 per cent of capacity but generated only 9 per cent of demand, often when not needed. (Nationwide, Canada at year-end 2021 had nominal wind capacity of 14,304 MW and solar of 2,399 MW, which sounds impressive at nearly 10 percent of installed capacity but, because wind and solar are so frequently unproductive, generated slightly less than 6 percent of Canada’s total electricity of 647.7 terawatt-hours.)
It must also be recognized that these sources receive “first-to-the-grid” rights, meaning that clean hydro potential is spilled and clean nuclear is steamed off to maintain grid stability. Ratepayers are saddled with those extra costs in addition to the high costs already paid to wind and solar developers. Due to their unreliable and intermittent nature, wind and solar require backup from natural gas generation, imposing large additional capital and operating costs, and ratepayers are saddled with those costs as well.
Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) – CCUS is a major part of the discussion paper. CCUS is a way to render carbon-emitting activities carbon-neutral – including the generation of electricity from fossil fuels. Based on the following statement, however, it seems to be viewed as temporary: “Over time, however, natural gas coupled with CCUS will increasingly be in competition with other emerging options that are both non-emitting and flexible in the roles they can play in electricity systems.” The potential of CCUS has gained increased interest from the Government of Alberta, and six major oilpatch participants are currently seeking “carbon capture credits” to assist in recovering some of the costs.
While Canada is a leader in the development of CCUS processes, here too the costs involved will be many billions of dollars. Those costs will add considerably to the electricity generation costs of fossil fuel-powered generation plants, including those required to back up intermittent and unreliable wind and solar generation. A June 2020 Royal Society report (see page 1) by researchers at Rutgers University stated: “The analysis suggests coal-sourced CO2 emissions can be stored in this region at a cost of $52-$60/ton, whereas the cost to store emissions from natural-gas-fired plants ranges from approximately $80 to $90.” Note the foregoing are U.S. dollars and those costs will be added to each kWh of electricity delivered. Transferring part of these costs from emitters to taxpayers through the use of investment tax credits for CCUS will not reduce the cost to society.
Hydrogen – Blending hydrogen with natural gas is another purported option touted by the discussion paper. It advocates “releasing the Hydrogen Strategy for Canada to position Canada as a world-leading producer, user and exporter of clean hydrogen, and associated technologies.” Blending low-energy and highly explosive hydrogen with higher-energy and safe natural gas will, however, further raise consumer costs and risk public health while barely reducing emissions, a U.S. think-tank reported in a March 30, 2022 article. “A blend of 20% green hydrogen in natural gas would raise fuel costs for heating and cooking by a factor of two to four, as renewable H2 is currently six to 14 times more expensive than fossil gas,” the article states. “Green hydrogen prices would have to fall by roughly an order of magnitude to achieve parity with the price of natural gas for use in buildings.” If applied in Canada through regulation rather than market forces, the blending of hydrogen and natural gas would further drive up the cost of electricity and other uses of gas.
Natural Gas – Natural gas has long been favoured as a clean, efficient, plentiful and affordable source of energy supply for multiple uses, including heating, cooling, cooking, electricity generation and, to a much lesser extent, powering vehicles. In absolute terms, natural gas is the fastest -growing source of supply for energy consumers worldwide, and through the use of liquefaction into LNG is one of the fastest-growing sources of international energy trade. The increasing domestic supply of natural gas and its affordability have allowed the United States to convert a large amount of previously coal-fired electricity generation to the lower-cost and cleaner fuel, as well as to become a major global exporter of LNG.
In Canada, natural gas is used both for reliable base-load power generation and as a backup source to help cope with the serious problems of intermittency that plague wind and solar generation sources. According to Canada’s Emissions Inventory, published by Environment and Climate Change Canada and submitted to the UN, in 2019 natural gas-fired generating plants produced 46,100 GWh of electricity, 8 per cent of Canada’s total, and emitted 22 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, 32 per cent of the emissions from power generation. This seemingly high ratio, however, is only illustrative of how extremely low greenhouse gas emissions already are from electricity generation in Canada. Emissions from natural-gas-generated power are only 3 per cent of Canada’s total emissions.
Despite its manifest benefits and relatively small role in greenhouse gas emissions, natural gas electricity generation is increasingly frowned upon in political circles and, in most provinces, may well come to represent mainly a source of backup power produced from plants constructed a decade or more ago. The Independent Electricity System Operator of Ontario (IESO) recently completed a study to determine the feasibility and cost of phasing out natural gas generation by 2030. Its findings are highly relevant to the federal government’s CES, and included the following points:
- Natural gas generation has attributes, including quick response time and assured availability, that keep the power grid reliable and help balance the variability of wind and solar;
- Completely phasing out gas generation by 2030 would lead to blackouts;
- Replacing gas generation in Ontario by 2030 would require more than $27 billion to install new sources of supply and upgrade transmission infrastructure. This translates into a 60 per cent, or $100 per month, increase in the average monthly residential bill; and
- There are many other practical considerations that make a 2030 phase-out impossible, including the time that it takes to plan, receive regulatory approvals for, and build new infrastructure, plus the non-availability of storage as an alternative. Those impediments are likely to last well beyond 2030.
The IESO report did not address the fact that many natural gas generation facilities, including those operated by private non-utility generators, while often signed to 20-year contracts, generally operate for much longer than that, in some cases under 40-year contracts. The premature cancellation of these contracts could cost well over $600 million, which would also be added to consumers’ bills.
Anyone considering the termination of existing contracts across Canada and the construction of new generation, transmission and storage facilities to replace the services now provided by natural gas-fired generators should take these factors into account.
Storage – Battery storage is only cited once in the discussion paper, in the following context: “Leveraging Canada’s competitive advantage in mining to build the Canadian battery and critical mineral supply chains.” The foregoing suggests the author(s) do not regard storage as a significant means to support the electricity sector, perhaps due to its high costs. A June 2021 report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory provided several capital cost examples, including one suggesting that a US$300/kWh, 4-hour battery would have a power capacity cost of $1,200/kW. That translates to a cost of US$1.2 million for just 1 MW of storage for 4 hours, demonstrating that, if implemented to any scale, the costs would further drive up electricity prices.
No jurisdiction anywhere in the world has yet succeeded in increasing the proportion of its electricity generated from intermittent renewables past 50 percent on an annualized basis. As the reliance on renewables increases, the grid operator must rely more on coal or natural gas-fuelled backup power, and where these are prohibited, on some form of storage, most likely from large batteries. The cost of batteries is high and increases with the period of time for which storage is required, and depending on whether the storage is needed only to balance daily or seasonal variations in demand. As suggested by the figures above, the cost of batteries sufficient to power a jurisdiction of millions of people would be enormous.
In jurisdictions where a calculation has been made, the costs of the batteries exceeds that jurisdiction’s full annual GDP and implies an electricity price increase by a factor of 15 or more. According to a study by Roger Andrews, the total amount of storage needed to provide secure supply in California amounts to about 25,000 GWh per year, more than a full month’s current rate of usage. Even assuming a substantial reduction in current battery prices, that would cost in the range of US$5 trillion. And these batteries would need to be replaced regularly. Ken Gregory, a Canadian engineer, has assessed the cost of electrifying the U.S. economy without hydrocarbon-based generation, including the cost of battery backup. He concludes that simply to meet 2020 demand for 31 days would require storage costing US$77.4 trillion, almost four times current U.S. annual GDP.
Bulk electricity battery storage is hopelessly insufficient, no matter the cost. David Wojick, a Virginia-based Ph.D. in the logic and philosophy of science, explains this well in his January 2021 online article “California secretly struggles with renewables.” Wojick writes:
“California has hooked up a grid battery system that is almost ten times bigger than the previous world record holder, but when it comes to making renewables reliable it is so small it might as well not exist. The new battery array is rated at a storage capacity of 1,200 megawatt hours (MWh); easily eclipsing the record holding 129 MWh Australian system built by Tesla a few years ago. However, California [energy demand] peaks at a whopping 42,000 MW. If that happened on a hot, low wind night this supposedly big battery would keep the lights on for just 1.7 minutes (that’s 103 seconds). This is truly a trivial amount of storage…Barely time to find the flashlight, right?”
Large-scale battery storage of electricity is still an infant industry, with enormous costs and technological risks. It is foolish in the extreme for the Government of Canada to commit to a pattern of electricity generation dependent on large-scale batteries for security of supply.
One example is referenced as the “Atlantic Loop” project which aims to transmit hydroelectric power from Muskrat Falls and Churchill Falls in Labrador to other Atlantic regions, principally Nova Scotia which has eight coal-fired plants that federal regulations require the province to close by 2030. No doubt Nova Scotia would be happy to replace those coal plants with hydro power but what might Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador charge for that power? The other consideration is that Quebec is a winter peaking province so has little surplus energy available during that period, meaning it will use much of the output from Churchill Falls.
To top things off, the Muskrat Falls project is delayed and vastly over budget, having ballooned from an estimated $7.2 billion to $13.1 billion. Last year the federal government stepped in to provide up to $5.2 billion, of which $1 billion will be a loan guarantee and another $1 billion for transmission costs. The latter figure is 20 per cent of the estimated cost of the Atlantic Loop, for which funding remains uncertain. In January 2022 Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced his department requires more information before it could “justify a federal investment.”
Based on the discussion paper’s comments, however, it appears the government is now prepared to “justify” that investment, as it states: “The ‘Atlantic Loop’ project is an example of collaboration to bring clean power to where it’s needed in Eastern Canada. The Government of Canada and the Canada Infrastructure Bank are currently collaborating with provinces and regional partners to advance this inter-connected project, which could greatly reduce emissions and maintain electricity affordability in the Atlantic region.” So, Nova Scotians should now wonder what the combined power and transmission costs might be. Will the cost of electricity be truly affordable? To top things off, GE, which supplied the turbines, has been having problems with the software for the Labrador Island-Link slated to bring power to the Northeast Avalon Peninsula.
High voltage transmission projects vary in terms of costs per kilometre. As one example the 301-kilometre Eastern Alberta Transmission Line, completed seven years ago, cost $1.8 billion or about $6 million per kilometre. Two major power lines under construction in northwestern Ontario are estimated to cost much less. One is the East-West Tie Line, a 450-kilometre line stretching from Wawa to Thunder Bay at a cost of $777 million, or $1.7 million per kilometre. The other is the 1,800-kilometre Wataynikaneyap Power line serving many small Indigenous communities. It will serve 15,000 people for a total cost of $1.9 billion or just over $1 million per kilometre. This amounts to a capital cost of $126,600 per person or over $500,000 for a family of four.
As the previously cited examples illustrate, the costs associated merely with constructing the transmission lines needed to deliver the “clean green” renewable energy (that, one can only hope, will actually be constructed) will require significant upgrades costing tens of billions of dollars. Those costs coupled with those associated with the desire to eliminate fossil fuel generation will drive up power costs for families and businesses.
This trend will affect the provinces of Nova Scotia, Alberta and Saskatchewan to an even greater degree than other provinces due to their current significant use of fossil fuels in the generation of their electricity needs. But, as we have seen, the drive to green a more hydro-based jurisdiction’s power supply also managed to double retail electricity costs in Ontario. These added costs will damage Canada’s ability to attract new business and its related capital investment, and will consequently decimate the economy and increase unemployment.
This analysis has outlined the impossibility in numerous areas of achieving the goals set forth by the Government of Canada within its proposed time-frame (in some instances, ever). An aggressive push towards the unrealistic objectives in the planned government policies will badly damage the Canadian economy. As well, such a process will consign millions of Canadian households to living in energy poverty (sometimes called “fuel poverty”), spending well over 10 per cent of their disposable income on trying to stay warm in winter and cool in summer. It is no accident that Canadian government climate plans never include reputable, independent cost/benefit analyses, because doing so would reveal to Canadians just how unachievable and punitively costly are the stated goals of Net Zero and its subset, the Clean Electricity Standard being discussed here.
It is important to recognize that Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 (the last year before the Covid-19 recession) were 20 megatonnes lower than merely the increase in China’s emissions in the two years between 2019 and 2021 – during the pandemic. China’s emissions as reported by the International Energy Agency rose to over 11.9 billion tonnes, 33 per cent of total global emissions. China was also the only major economy to experience economic growth in both 2020 and 2021, undermining the often-cited claim that “the environment and the economy go hand in hand.”
Sensible, measurable policies to achieve tangible benefits to the environment are welcomed by the Coalition of Concerned Manufacturers and Businesses of Canada. Unfortunately, the Government of Canada’s approach in the Clean Electricity Standard document does not qualify as sensible, measurable, beneficial – or even achievable.
Robert Lyman is an economist with 35 years’ experience as an analyst, policy advisor and senior manager in the Canadian federal government.
Parker Gallant spent 33 years in the banking industry. In retirement he applies his banker’s common sense to analyzing the Canadian energy sector and writing the blog Energy Perspectives.