Renewable Energy in Canada
You may have heard that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. You may also be aware that everything around us requires energy and always exchanges energy with the environment. This implies that energy can take many forms. Some of these include thermal, motion, nuclear, sound and chemical energy. We harness these different sources to power civilizational processes like heavy industry, electricity for our homes, and fuel combustion engines like cars and airplanes.
There's only one problem. And it has to do with our sources of energy. The fastest and cheapest energy available to us is fossil fuels. Fossil fuels form through fossilization of dead organisms millions of years ago. As a rule, they contain large amounts of carbon. This means they combust easily but also release toxins in the environment like carbon dioxide and methane. According to OECD, 85% of world energy production and consumption comes from fossil fuels. This accounts for 70% of global greenhouse emissions that are the major driver behind climate change.
The challenge facing the globe is to find workable means to transition out of the fossil fuel economy. One path toward a sustainable future involves leveraging renewable energy sources in addition to non-polluting non-renewable like nuclear on the global scale. But what is renewable energy? And what is Canada doing to advance it?
What is Renewable Energy?
According to the Government of Canada, renewable energy consists of any energy source that can be replenished at the same or faster rate than it is consumed. These include natural processes like wind, hydropower or moving waters, biomass, solar, geothermal, solid biomass, biogas and liquid biofuels. Biomass consists of solid organic matter like wood and organic waste, while biogas consists of gases produced from the same organic matter in absence of oxygen.
According to Vaclav Smil, a leading Canadian economic analyst and thinker on energy, renewables might take decades before they see large-scale adoption. Part of the reason comes from the infrastructural inertia of the existing industry. It takes time before the industry can take advantage of an energy supply chain that keeps up with demand. Moreover, the renewable sector is much more fragmented than fossil fuel because each renewable source has its unique needs.
For example, biomass and hydro are beset by scaling costs that are sometimes overlooked. Biomass replenishes at a very slow rate. Expanding biomass plantations often results in a trade-off for natural grasslands, forests and lowlands. Hydro is the largest non-fossil fuel renewable and has proved to be the most scalable at high efficiency and low cost. Still, the expansion of hydro dams is also beset by environmental impacts. These affect wildlife through large tracts of land that can lead to flooding and disruption of the natural habitat.
Even so, renewables remain a crucial front in stemming the climate change trajectory afflicting the globe.
The Canadian Context
As a net exporter of energy, Canada is a leader in energy production. While its energy production partly drives Canada's economic success, it is also dependent on fossil fuels.
At present, 16.3% of Canada's primary energy production comes from renewable sources. This is far behind countries like Iceland, Uruguay, Norway, Ethiopia, and Iceland, whose renewable energy output accounts for 80-100% of all their primary energy production. At the same time, countries that source from renewables tend, by and large, to be less industrialized or small enough to supply the population with less net production.
Canada's resource-rich geography makes it an ideal candidate to be a leader in renewable energy. When you break it down, 67.5% of Canadian renewables are sourced from hydropower, 23.3% from solid biomass like wood or waste, 5.2% from wind, and the rest a combination of geothermal, bio-gasses and solar. Canada's total renewable energy production also accounts for 3% of the global total.
But this also means that roughly 83.7% of Canada's primary energy comes from non-renewable energy sources. 32% of Canada's total production alone comes from crude oil, mostly centred in Alberta. Because crude oil is unrefined, processes of drilling, refining and burning adversely impact the surrounding environment. Its export, furthermore, perpetuates the cycle of greenhouse gas emissions.
A great deal of Canada's energy trade surplus depends on crude oil exports. This presents a challenge for Canada's transition toward a more sustainable future. But it also means that energy production across the world is heavily connected. A proper global solution requires, among other things, the minimization of absolute demand for fossil fuels in the world economy.
The Future of Energy
Boosting the adoption of renewables requires both government action and market incentives. On the positive side, renewables are the fastest-growing sources of energy. On the less positive, it is unlikely that renewables will displace fossil fuel dominance soon.
The Government of Canada enacted the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act in 2018, which disincentivizes carbon usage by taxing it per metric ton. The legislation gives flexibility to the provinces to set their pricing systems that meet federal benchmarks.
A promising front for renewables is the production of green hydrogen. Unlike other hydrogen production methods, green hydrogen is completely carbon-free and harnesses the electric current in water (known as electrolysis) to break it into its components. On January 27, 2021, the world's largest green hydrogen plant was inaugurated in Quebec, Canada, by Air Liquide. Because green hydrogen production is expensive, innovation is important to increase its cost-effectiveness.
Canadian solutions can only work together with global solutions toward sustainable energy. These involve ensuring the commercial viability of non-carbon energy sources, addressing energy disparities worldwide, and finally addressing the environmental costs of renewables through innovation. Global cooperation via international treaties and agreements is indispensable to achieving these goals.