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Jun 08 2017

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Connecting Canadians through a renewable energy supergrid

June 8, 2017 | By

Just like the rest of the world, Canada faces the big challenge to decrease the carbon emissions that result from our energy use. One way to do this is to produce more low-carbon renewable electricity while at the same time rapidly electrifying other sectors, like heating and transportation.

It should be easy because Canada is blessed with a diversity of renewable energy resources. Globally, we rank second in hydropower generation – thanks mostly to Quebec, Manitoba and BC. Only China uses more flowing water to generate electricity. But it’s not just hydro. Ontario has become a large wind and solar player and Nova Scotia hosts one of the world’s few tidal power plants operating at scale.

More resources remain undeveloped. Hydropower could be doubled by exploiting new sites in BC, Manitoba, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador. Alberta and Saskatchewan have some of the best wind and solar potential in the country, and it could replace oil and gas as the key energy drivers there. Ontario still has undeveloped wind and solar potential. On top of these resources, Canada could leverage its forestry industry to create sustainable biomass, while offshore wind, wave and tidal power have potential on both coasts.

However, despite these advantages, Canada’s sheer size is a major barrier to renewable energy expansion. Many of these resources are scattered throughout the country in remote locations. It would be difficult – and expensive – to get this low-carbon renewable electricity to where it is needed, when it is needed.

However, there is a bold solution: connecting all of Canada through a national east-west renewable electricity supergrid that links the country’s vast renewable resources to where they are needed.

 

In this video, Richard Carlson discusses in greater detail the nation-building potential of a pan-Canadian renewable energy supergrid.

 

A Bold Idea: Connecting the Country

A national supergrid would use high voltage direct current lines (HV DC) to connect all consumers with renewable electricity, and do it efficiently (see map below). Hydropower could act as a flexible backup to the more variable wind and solar resources, increasing reliability. HV DC lines, unlike the more common alternating current (AC) lines, are able to transmit electricity vast distances without losses, thereby enabling this electricity trade.

As with any network, larger is better as it enables more diversity and reliability. Thus, Canada’s size, along with its geographic and weather diversity, would be an advantage for the system. According to modelling exercises in the US, the larger the area encompassed by a supergrid, the more wind and solar power sources that could be reliably integrated. Moreover, a larger area means lower electricity costs because the system has more options to meet electricity demand using the most efficient resources at that particular time and location.

In addition to promoting low-carbon energy, consumers in provinces with higher-cost electricity systems would also benefit from lower-cost hydropower.

What needs to be done

There are three main challenges to overcome:

  1. Building the HV DC lines
  2. Creating an institutional and market framework
  3. Costs

HV DC lines will enable the development of the supergrid. HV DC lines are not new – in fact there are a number in Canada, including one exporting hydropower from northern Quebec to the U.S. and another connecting northern Manitoba with the southern part of the province. But a Canadian supergrid would require HV DC lines to be built on a much larger scale than has ever been done.

A number of jurisdictions are also looking into building large HV DC supergrids to integrate large amounts of renewable power. A private consortium in the U.S. is proposing to build an HV DC line extending from western Oklahoma to western Tennessee. With this project, the south-eastern portions of the country could be supplied with wind power developed in the particularly windy Oklahoma panhandle. China has a similar plan to connect wind and hydro farms in the interior of the country with areas on the coast. On a larger scale, the head of China’s State Grid Corporation, the state-owned transmission utility for most of China, has even talked about a global wind and solar electricity grid with a base in Asia.

The European Union has been studying the idea of a North Sea Supergrid to connect offshore wind power with each of the countries in the region. Nordic hydropower would also be integrated for backup.

Here in Canada, integrating jurisdictions will be another challenge. Getting the provinces to work together will not be easy – as can be seen in the long and tangled history between Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec over hydropower development and transmission rights. The provinces are also used to treating electricity as their domain and meeting their electricity needs from within their borders. Electricity development has been used for local economic development at times, such as with nuclear and renewable power in Ontario and hydropower in Quebec.

Federal leadership could help bring the provinces together to overcome the obstacles to market integration. Examples of different jurisdictions integrating their markets, generally for political and economic reasons, are numerous. The Nordic countries, for example, integrated their electricity markets in 1996 and included competitive markets such as Denmark with the more government-owned market of Norway. Closer to home, Pennsylvania and New Jersey joined their electricity markets in 1927 to create the PJM Market. That market now includes 14 northeastern states. And despite a history of political antagonism, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have integrated their electricity market in the All-Island Single Electricity Market.

Finally, cost would be a major challenge. A 2013 estimate puts the total cost for a national supergrid across Canada at $22 billion (in 2011 dollars) – and this is likely a low estimate. The proposed federal infrastructure bank includes funding for cross-border electricity connections, which could help alleviate the cost burden.

It would literally connect the entire country, bring everyone together to work on reducing our carbon emissions, and benefit all Canadians.

One possible option for the funding would be to develop the supergrid in a more piecemeal, regional fashion. These regional supergrids would focus on provincial connections that could offer high value, such as those between BC and Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and Quebec and Ontario and the Maritimes first, while ensuring that these links could later be expanded to include other provinces. One advantage of the more regional supergrids is that they could be integrated with American neighbours where suitable.

While not without its challenges, developing an east-west Canadian Renewable Supergrid would be a nation-building project, in line with past national infrastructure projects. Each province would, with its unique geographic advantages, contribute to the making of the supergrid and benefit from it. It would literally connect the entire country, bringing everyone together to work on reducing our carbon emissions, and benefit all Canadians.

Canada has long been an energy “superpower.” A renewable energy supergrid would allow it be an energy superpower for a very long time to come.


As Canada marks its 150th birthday this year, Canadians have a historic opportunity not only to celebrate a century and a half of accomplishments, but also to look forward to what we can achieve in the future. The Mowat Centre is releasing a series of short written pieces and video interviews that look ahead and present a variety of bold, potentially transformative policy ideas.

More Bold Ideas

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Video Title

Nation-building through a pan-Canadian renewable energy supergrid

Featured Contributors

Richard Carlson

Release Date

June 8, 2017

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