Canada’s new 90% target for non-GHG emitting electricity

Note: In light of a perceptive comment, I have made some revisions to the post below. In all cases, the old text is struck out.

In yesterday’s Speech from the Throne, the government pledged to increase the share of Canada’s electricity generated from non-emitting sources to 90% by 2020. Looking into the math behind this objective reveals just how ambitious it is. The following numbers are all somewhat approximate, but their precision is not important for revealing the underlying dynamic.

In order to have 90% non-emitting power, you need to have ten nine times more capacity in non-emitting sources like hydroelectricity, nuclear, and renewables than you have in emitting capacity like coal and natural gas plants. Right now, Canada has somewhere around 110 gigawatts (GW) of total installed electrical capacity: 70% of which is non-emitting. Using the following basic equation, we can work out how much non-emitting energy we need in order to reach the 90% objective, based on different scenarios for what happens to the emitting capacity:

0.90 = (gigawatts non-emitting) / (gigawatts non-emitting + gigawatts emitting)

In every case, you have ten nine times more non-emitting (clean) capacity than emitting (dirty) capacity. Therefore, getting to the 90% target while retaining all 33 GW of Canada’s dirty capacity means bumping our clean capacity from 77 GW to 330 297 GW – an increase of 253 220 GW.

To put that in perspective, 253 220 gigawatts is 230% of Canada’s current total electrical generating capacity. 253 220 gigawatts is more than thirty-seven thirty-two times the capacity of the Grand Coulee Dam and is equivalent to more than fourty thirty-five times the output of the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station. 253 220 gigawatts is more than eleven nine times the generating capacity of the Three Gorges Dam.

Things get worse if you expand Canada’s dirty electricity generating capacity. If we were foolish enough to double it, we would need 583 517 GW of new clean energy to achieve the 90% target. Cutting the dirty capacity by 50% from today’s level means we would need to build another 88 71.5 GW of clean capacity. If we cut the dirty capacity by 75%, we would be able to reach the 90% target with no new clean capacity built.

The reasons for all this are intuitive enough. It is like a lever where the arm on one side of the fulcrum is ten nine times longer than the other. If you want to balance out the weight on the long arm (equivalent to the dirty capacity), you need to add an awful lot of weight to the short arm (equivalent to clean capacity).

Of course, all this is rather misleading when considered in the abstract. It’s not as though doubling our dirty capacity would be just fine if we also built 583 517 GW of new dams, wind farms, and nuclear stations. What is important in the end is the total quantity of Canadian emissions: an outcome only partially influenced by the balance between zero-emission and high-emission electricity capacity. The fact that the 90% figure is unaffected by replacing coal plants with superior gas plants also demonstrates how problematic it is as a metric.

The final possibility to mention here is that of carbon capture and storage (CCS). If it proves effective and economical, applying it to existing dirty facilities would be equivalent to switching them into the clean column. Realistically, CCS will probably only ever capture 80-90% of the emissions from any facility it is coupled with. Applying that imperfect technology to a coal-fired behemoth like the Nanticoke Generating Station wouldn’t shift it from the dirty column to the completely clean one, but it would represent a useful chunk of real reduction in the quantity of climate-altering greenhouse gasses Canada is emitting into the atmosphere.

[Update: 8:11pm] For those interested in the numbers on this, please have a look at this post on Tyler Hamilton’s blog and the discussion below it.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

17 thoughts on “Canada’s new 90% target for non-GHG emitting electricity”

  1. Realistically, CCS will probably only ever capture 80-90% of the emissions from any facility it is coupled with. Applying that imperfect technology to a coal-fired behemoth like the Nanticoke Generating Station wouldn’t shift it from the dirty column to the completely clean one

    This is an easy problem to solve.

    Rather than counting entire power plants as units, count individual megawatt-hours. A coal plant that sequesters 80% of its emissions produces both clean and dirty megawatt-hours at that percentage. Rather than seeking to be able to produce 90% of our maximum possible production at any point in time from clean sources, it makes more sense to try to ensure than 90% of the energy we produce over the course of a year is made using clean sources.

    That does leave the problem of the dirty/non-dirty binary for each megawatt-hour. Because of it, you cannot register that replacing a coal-fired megawatt with a gas-fired one is an improvement, from a climate change perspective.

  2. Here is a basic chart showing how much new non-emitting capacity is required to reach the 90% objective, based on different regimes for dealing with the emitting capacity we have.

    On the left are scenarios where we build more emitting capacity (up to doubling the current quantity). On the right are scenarios where we cut back.

  3. Anonymous,

    Counting watt-hours of generation rather than watts of installed capacity does help address the possible issue of CCS deployment.

    Still, it would be simpler to select a target that relates directly to greenhouse gas emissions. Lumping together all emitting and all non-emitting sources into two monolithic groups risks concealing more than it reveals.

  4. What about the oil sands? Harper’s goal of 90% emission-free electricity by 2020 not so ambitious

    Canada generates about 510 terawatt-hours of electricity, and 72 per cent of that already comes from non-emitting sources — 58 per cent from hydroelectric power and 12 per cent from nuclear power (these are rough calculations, but in the ballpark). Fossil fuels represent 28 per cent of production, and most of that comes out of coal and natural gas plants in Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan.

    Ontario has already announced it will be closing all its coal plants by 2014, and plants currently operational have a combined capacity of about 6,500 megawatts. When they are shut down, the amount of non-emitting power production in Canada climbs to 78 per cent. So between now and 2020 we’ve got 12 years to make up the other 12 per cent. It means almost cutting in half the amount of fossil fuel power generation used outside of Ontario.

    Now, cutting in half that amount of fossil fuels means displacing it with 60 terawatt-hours of electricity from non-emitting resources. It means installing about 10,000 industrial wind turbines (100 wind farms?), or eight 1,200 MW nuclear reactors, or 100 large biomass thermal power plants (like EPCOR’s Williams Lake biomass plant in B.C.), or some combination of those along with solar PV and distributed generation. I won’t even include geothermal power in this because our government is asleep on that one.

  5. In every case, you have ten times more non-emitting (clean) capacity than emitting (dirty) capacity.

    Actually, I think this should be nine times as much.

    1 dirty, 9 clean = 90% clean
    2 dirty, 18 clean = 90% clean
    100 dirty, 900 clean = 90% clean

  6. Here is another chart I cooked up.

    It shows possible mixes of emitting and non-emitting power. In each case, the mixture is 90% non-emitting. What varies is the total amount of electricity produced. On the left is a scenario where 2020 electricity production is 150% of the current quantity (which is about 100 gigawatts). On the right is a scenario where electricity use is cut to 50% of the current level.

    The red and blue lines show how much dirty and clean power would be required in 2020, to produce any multiple of our current usage, across that range.

  7. Throne speech a boon to hydro
    Tories pledge to ditch dirty power plants

    By: Mia Rabson and Mary Agnes Welch
    Updated: November 20 at 06:40 AM CST

    “OTTAWA — Manitoba hydro development could get a boost from a federal throne speech that pledged to ditch dirty power plants in favour of non-emitting electricity sources…

    The throne speech also commits Canada to getting 90 per cent of its electricity from non-emitting sources by 2020. Currently, about 25 per cent of our power is from greenhouse-gas spewing power plants fired by coal, natural gas and oil.

    “This is a huge opportunity for Manitoba,” said Manitoba junior cabinet minister Steven Fletcher, noting it will help propel work on the east-west power grid and dam development in northern Manitoba. “I will be happy to do whatever we can to get it going,” he said of the grid.

    In addition to hydroelectricity, non-emitting sources eligible to be part of the 90 per cent plan are nuclear, wind and clean coal, the latter of which was panned by critics who say clean coal still emits significant greenhouse gases. “

  8. The 2008 IEA WEO – Renewable Energy Highlights
    By Robert Rapier

    “World energy demand is projected to grow from 11,730 Mtoe (million metric tons of oil equivalents) in 2006 to 17,010 Mtoe in 2030.

    Fossil fuels, with oil as the primary source, will account for 80% of energy used in 2030.

    China and India will be responsible for over half of the increased energy demand between now and 2030.

    The share of nuclear power in the world energy mix falls from 6% in 2008 to 5% in 2030.

    Renewable energy will displace natural gas to become the second largest producer of electrical energy by 2015, but will still lag far behind coal

    Carbon dioxide emissions from coal combustion are forecast to rise from 11.7 billion metric tons in 2006 to 18.6 billion metric tons in 2030.

    The ability of carbon sequestration to limit carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 is limited.

    Renewable-based electricity is forecast to grow dramatically. Most of the increase is expected to come from hydro and onshore wind power.

    For OECD countries, the increase in renewable electricity is greater than the increase in electricity from fossil fuels and nuclear.

    Electrolysis to produce hydrogen, later used in fuel cells on demand is an option, but the overall efficiency is only 40%.”

  9. Can North America’s largest coal plant convert to biomass?

    My Clean Break column today takes a closer look at efforts by Ontario Power Generation to convert some of its coal-fired generating assets into biomass-burning power plants, including potentially several units at its Nanticoke Generating Station – North America’s largest coal plant. The provincial Liberal government has vowed to shut down the last of Ontario’s coal plants by 2014, and biomass conversion is being seriously considered as a way of partially getting there. It’s an ambitious undertaking, given the scale of such a project, but successfully making it happen would solve many problems with one solution.

  10. I have re-done the calculations using terawatt-hours of output, rather than installed capacity.

    As of 2006, Canada produced 583 terawatt-hours of electricity. Of that, 459.2 TWH (78.8%) came from non-emitting sources, and 123.8 TWH came from emitting sources.

    Here, then, are five different projections for how many TWH of emitting and non-emitting electricity would be required, for different percentage changes in total electricity usage:

    20% cut in usage:

    Total 2020 energy use (TWH) – 467.0
    Total emitting TWH – 46.7
    Total non-emitting TWH – 420.3
    Emitting TWH to be eliminated – 77.1
    Non-emitting TWH to be added – -38.9 (negative)
    Number of 7.5 TWH nuclear reactors -5.2 (negative)

    10% cut in usage:

    Total 2020 energy use (TWH) – 525.3
    Total emitting TWH – 52.5
    Total non-emitting TWH – 472.8
    Emitting TWH to be eliminated – 71.3
    Non-emitting TWH to be added – 13.6
    Number of 7.5 TWH nuclear reactors – 1.8

    Constant usage:

    Total 2020 energy use (TWH) – 583.7
    Total emitting TWH – 58.4
    Total non-emitting TWH – 525.3
    Emitting TWH to be eliminated – 65.4
    Non-emitting TWH to be added – 66.1
    Number of 7.5 TWH nuclear reactors – 8.8

    10% rise in usage:

    Total 2020 energy use (TWH) – 642.1
    Total emitting TWH – 64.2
    Total non-emitting TWH – 577.9
    Emitting TWH to be eliminated – 59.6
    Non-emitting TWH to be added – 118.7
    Number of 7.5 TWH nuclear reactors – 15.8

    20% rise in usage:

    Total 2020 energy use (TWH) – 700.4
    Total emitting TWH – 70.0
    Total non-emitting TWH – 630.4
    Emitting TWH to be eliminated – 53.8
    Non-emitting TWH to be added – 171.2
    Number of 7.5 TWH nuclear reactors – 22.8

  11. Electricity generated from coal – Total electricity generated (2006)

    Canada: 97,625 gigawatt-hours (GWH)

    Nova Scotia: 7,054 GWH
    New Brunswick: 3,513 GWH
    Ontario: 28,494 GWH
    Manitoba: 352 GWH
    Saskatchewan: 11,620 GWH
    Alberta: 46,592 GWH

    Report on Energy Supply-demand in Canada (2006)
    Catalogue no. 57-003-X

  12. Coal under co-fire
    If Obama stops dirty coal, as he must, what will replace it? An intro to biomass cofiring
    Posted by Joseph Romm (Guest Contributor) at 6:57 PM on 23 Feb 2009

    Biomass cofiring will be the focus of a couple of posts since, although rarely-discussed, it is probably the cheapest, easiest, and fastest way to provide new renewable baseload power without having to build any new transmission lines.

  13. Why mandate renewables if we already have a cap on CO2?

    Posted 7:49 AM on 7 May 2009
    by David Roberts

    The problem is that academic economists and the laissez faire-ists who love them have an idealized view of the market and of market-based policies. They assume unpriced carbon pollution is the only externality (or “market failure”) in an otherwise more-or-less free, open, competitive energy market. Incorporate the social cost of carbon pollution into the price of energy and you’re done. Indeed, why any policies beyond a price on carbon?

    The answer is that unpriced carbon is not the only market failure. In fact, there are dozens, hundreds of such failures. If you sought to address them all with a carbon price—a fairly blunt tool—you’d need a very, very high price, and that’s not going to happen.

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