Consensus is growing: Canada and the world must move quickly and decidedly to decarbonize electricity systems and entire economies in the coming years. This is the moment for big-picture, ambitious planning of projects and pathways that meet climate targets, keep energy affordable and reliable, support green careers, and keep the land, air, and water clean.
We must move quickly, but also listen to and involve communities and experts as we plan a green and just COVID-19 recovery that advances a decarbonized electricity system and economy.
An example of one such project is the Atlantic Loop—a set of possible solutions to increase transmission capacity within and between Atlantic provinces, and with Quebec, to accelerate the phaseout of coal-fired electricity and increase access to clean electricity.
Phasing out coal throughout Canada by 2030 has been a key pillar of the federal government’s climate action plans since 2016. Despite this, Atlantic Canada’s unique politics and electricity system make it a challenge in the region. As of 2018, about one-third of the electricity generated in the Maritimes was still coming from coal, with more than 2,000 MW of generation capacity across six highly polluting power plants in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. If the region can phase out coal electricity by 2030, a total of 125 premature deaths and 12,100 asthma episodes could be avoided, among other human health and climate benefits.
A more robust transmission system from sources like existing hydroelectricity would ensure reliable delivery of electricity to regions that need clean imports at an affordable cost to ratepayers.
Increased transmission capacity between provinces makes quitting coal in Atlantic Canada less challenging, because it provides access to renewable resources throughout the region, including hydro but also potentially wind and solar. While various transition plans and ideas are proposed, one thing remains clear: there is a need to build and strengthen transmission capacity connecting the Atlantic provinces. A more robust transmission system from sources like existing hydroelectricity would ensure reliable delivery of electricity to regions that need clean imports at an affordable cost to ratepayers. Future renewable energy projects, such as wind and solar, would receive adequate grid support.
This is where the idea of the Atlantic Loop comes in. It was a new addition to commitments in the Throne Speech in September and part of the $2.5-billion for clean generation, transmission, and energy storage announced as part of the $10-billion Canada Infrastructure Bank Growth Plan.
Every aspect of the clean-electricity transition in Canada comes with benefits and risks. Now is the time to decide which solutions to prioritize and which to exclude for the Atlantic Loop.
The path of new mega-hydro projects, new nuclear plants, and increased natural gas capacity linking to this transmission loop comes with climate impacts, high costs, and unacceptable impacts to communities and ecosystems. Distributed, affordable technologies like wind, solar and other renewables, paired with grid upgrades, energy efficiency and energy storage involve communities and bring jobs, benefits and savings to households. Plus, they can be implemented rapidly.
Renewable, distributed technologies were seen to be more acceptable sources of low-carbon power than technologies such as nuclear, new large hydro and fossil-fuel generation with carbon capture and storage.
For a David Suzuki Foundation report, more than 150 energy experts from across Canada were interviewed about the details of the energy transition, technology and policy options, and what ideas Canadians are most willing to support. Renewable, distributed technologies were seen to be more acceptable sources of low-carbon power than technologies such as nuclear, new large hydro and fossil-fuel generation with carbon capture and storage. The report’s findings also support electricity mixes that achieve “clean, safe, reliable, accessible and affordable” energy systems.
We must also learn from mistakes and listen to communities. For example, the enormous cost overruns, devastating local impacts and significant Indigenous rights and sovereignty issues associated with the Muskrat Falls project in Labrador suggest large hydro is unlikely to be acceptable as part of the climate and energy solutions offered by the Atlantic Loop.
That said, Quebec and Labrador have plentiful excess existing hydroelectric capacity. The best climate-friendly way forward for the Atlantic Loop will likely pair that with local grid upgrades, energy efficiency programming and fantastic wind and solar resources throughout Atlantic Canada.
It is encouraging to see steps toward decarbonization of the region’s electricity system. For the sake of the climate and human health, we must move quickly and get this right. We must choose a path that prioritizes Indigenous consent and participation, considers the direct benefits to communities, listens to expert advice, and avoids repeating mistakes.
This op-ed was originally published in The Hill Times