The Net-Zero Transition in Canada: Decentralised Energy’s Role
In 2022, the Canadian Federal Government announced its intentions for a net-zero grid by 2035, part of our overarching ambitions for a full net-zero transition in Canada. Although Canada already has one of the cleanest power grids in the world, there is still a long way to go.
The Liberal government cites that one of the key challenges in its effort to succeed at the net-zero transition in Canada is that we do not have a national power grid. Additionally, they say that the creation of this grid will secure affordable clean power for all Canadians.
The Government of Canada intends to achieve this through various legal and policy instruments as well as funding programs to support the implementation of these projects. The introduction of the Clean Electricity Standard will contribute to how this project could be implemented by 2035 and funding from the Canadian Infrastructure Bank will no doubt help in its deployment. Additionally, the current plan to phase out coal-fired electricity generation by 2030 will also play a significant factor in overall greenhouse gas emissions reduction.
Problems with a National Power Grid for Canada’s Clean Energy Transition
However, there is also the need to consider the growing demand for electricity as other parts of the economy shift from carbon-based fuels to cleaner electricity in order to decarbonize their own activities. There are still many remote and Indigenous communities that rely on diesel to power their homes, schools, public buildings and workplaces. Energy consumption also tends to be much higher in these communities due to the poor energy efficiency of buildings and colder climates. There is a significant percentage of the population in Canada that possesses an increased challenge in their transition to clean energy – an issue that a national electricity grid will be unlikely to address. While there may be some opportunities with the creation of a national power grid, there are also many challenges as well.
The creation of a national electricity grid is an ambitious one. Canada is a big country, and much like the creation of the national highway and railway, the creation of a national transmission line will be time-consuming and expensive. It will no doubt create hundreds if not thousands of jobs across Canada, but these costs will inevitably be handed down to the tax-payers, if not in this administration then potentially in the next, further negating the intention of providing affordable power.
“Even the Canadian Electrical Code is not congruent from province to province, making the construction of a national electricity grid even more challenging.”
Secondly, although the Federal government has jurisdictional responsibility over electricity exports and designated inter-provincial and international transmission lines, regulation of the electricity sector is primarily at the provincial level, including most policies that relate to pricing and generation. This is further complicated by the codes and standards different regions are beholden to, as even the Canadian Electrical Code is not congruent from province to province, making the construction of a national electricity grid even more challenging.
Lastly, the increasing volatility and frequency of natural disasters further implicate the reliability of a national power grid as storms that hit one area of the country could contribute to the loss of power in another, even if that region has not been affected by the weather. One of the top priorities should the creation of a resilient and robust system that ensures energy security, especially at a time when it is most needed.
Decentralised Energy Systems for a Robust Net-Zero Economy
The transition to a net-zero electricity grid by 2035 is not unachievable, it will just require a multi-level approach to get there.
Traditionally, in Canada, electricity generation has focused on the development of large central generating stations and long transmission and distribution lines to get power to consumers. Alternatively, the use of clean decentralised energy systems puts power sources closer to the end user, which reduces transmission and distribution inefficiencies, optimizing the use of energy. These systems can also be integrated with storage and smart grid enabling technologies to create robust and resilient energy systems.
Decentralised energy systems can be used as a supplementary measure to the existing centralised energy systems. These systems can provide promising opportunities for the deployment of locally available renewable energy resources as well as expand access to clean energy in remote communities. Decentralised energy systems can be connected to distribution lines and, through the linking of these systems, increase their reliability particularly when intermittent renewable energy resources are used.
“The decentralisation of energy creates a real opportunity for communities to become more involved and active in their energy future.”
Decentralised Energy (DE) is defined by DEC as “energy generation that is located close to the point(s) of consumption”. DE systems are designed to meet local thermal and/or electrical loads. The decentralisation of energy creates a real opportunity for communities to become more involved and active in their energy future.
DE assets at the municipal level can provide a strong pathway for energy resiliency at the community level and strengthen the wider system. This is achieved through community energy planning, which provides communities with a better understanding of how to manage their local energy needs and develop robust frameworks to meet realistic goals at a local level.
This integrated approach aligns energy, infrastructure and land use with a focused direction for future sustainable development. This can lead to community energy projects that are wholly owned and/or controlled by communities or through a partnership with commercial or public sector partners. Localized clean energy projects can create an economic vehicle for communities that may otherwise be excluded from the energy system and helps to accelerate the transition to net-zero while increasing community resilience.
Community energy projects underpin the rapid roll-out of a decentralised energy system by giving local people a stake in the outcome. These projects create jobs in a community and contribute to the education and training of a local workforce, creating human capacity to support future renewable energy projects. These projects not only provide energy security, energy equity and energy autonomy to a community but provide citizens with an opportunity to exert more control over their energy futures and to participate in Canada’s energy transition. Additionally, this collective purpose can help inform and normalize the adoption of demand reduction behaviours and encourage the uptake of energy efficiency measures.
Collaborative Pathways for Emissions Reduction and the Net-Zero Transition
The Federal government intends to “create a Pan-Canadian Grid Council in partnership with provinces, territories, Indigenous peoples, the private sector, labour and civil society.” For us to succeed at the net-zero transition in Canada, we cannot take an either-or approach; action is required at all levels. Partnerships and collaboration will be key factors in Canada’s energy transition to a net-zero electricity grid, pushing the mission forward and providing stability to this movement, both from financial and non-financial perspectives.
“Partnerships with community members are necessary for the uptake of community energy projects and are an important component of how Canada will move closer to its net-zero targets.”
Partnerships will help to increase knowledge, expertise and resource availability. They will bring people together while opening up new channels of communication, enhancing relationships and providing a platform for a shared approach toward community improvement and development. Partnerships with community members are necessary for the uptake of community energy projects and are an important component of how Canada will move closer to its net-zero targets in the coming years. Policies and funding programs are integral for these energy projects to become a reality, both from a national grid perspective as well as at the community level.
Municipalities and Indigenous groups can develop solutions for their local needs. In both resource-rich and resource-poor contexts, these factions can develop alternative energy strategies for their communities that challenge the status quo while providing community benefits and social equity. Community participation will be vital in the net-zero transition in Canada, as constructive change rarely occurs or lasts when efforts are siloed.
The pathway to a net-zero electricity grid by 2035 will require multiple avenues, including grid-connected and off-grid decentralised energy, to successfully implement clean, secure and affordable electricity to all Canadians. National participation and local capacity will be key factors in our ability to reduce emissions and transition to a net-zero economy. Provincial, territorial, municipal and Indigenous communities must all be a part of the solution. Due to the disjointed nature of Canada’s energy grid and regulatory systems, the implementation of local decentralised energy projects will be required to support the development of secure and affordable net-zero power for all Canadians. For a successful net-zero transition in Canada by 2050, we must think locally rather than nationally.