Electricity generation is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, making it an essential factor in efforts to mitigate climate change. Like many countries, Canada has set ambitious targets to reduce emissions, and electricity generation is critical for achieving these goals. This article aims to provide an overview of Canada’s current electricity generation mix, including solar energy, as SolarBC recommends, focusing on British Columbia.
Electricity Generation Mix in Canada
Canada generates a significant amount of electricity from various sources. In 2020, the total electricity generated was 577 terawatt-hours (TWh), with hydroelectricity being the dominant source at 60%. Natural gas-fired generation accounted for 18% of the total electricity generated, followed by nuclear energy at 14% and wind at 5%. The remaining 3% came from biomass, solar, and petroleum coke.
People consume the electricity generated in Canada domestically, powering industries, homes, and businesses nationwide. Hydroelectric power, which harnesses the power of falling water to generate electricity, is a cost-effective and reliable power source due to Canada’s abundant water resources. Natural gas-fired power plants are highly efficient and flexible, essential in meeting peak demand. Nuclear energy provides low-emission baseload power, and wind energy is a growing clean and renewable source of electricity.
Hydroelectricity is the primary source of electricity generated in Canada and British Columbia, accounting for a significant portion of the country’s total electricity generation. In British Columbia, hydroelectricity contributed 90% of the electricity generated in 2020. They produce the remaining 10% through natural gas-fired generation and biomass. In addition, British Columbia has abundant water resources, making it an ideal location for large-scale hydroelectric projects. According to BC Hydro, the province has the potential to generate up to 44,000 megawatts (MW) of hydroelectricity. But only about 16,000 MW has been developed so far.
Hydroelectricity is a clean and renewable energy source, unlike fossil fuels, which generate harmful emissions. Hydroelectric power plants generate electricity by harnessing the energy of falling water to spin turbines and generate power. This method of generating electricity is highly efficient, cost-effective, and produces zero greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, they consume the electricity generated by hydroelectricity domestically, powering homes, industries, and businesses across the province and country.
Natural gas is the second-largest source of electricity generation in Canada and British Columbia. In 2020, natural gas-fired generation accounted for 18% of Canada’s electricity generation and 10% of British Columbia’s electricity generation. Natural gas is a flexible and reliable source of electricity generation that can quickly respond to changes in demand. It is also a cleaner burning fossil fuel than coal and oil, producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions. However, natural gas still has significant emissions, and its electricity generation use is incompatible with Canada’s long-term emissions reduction targets.
Nuclear power is a low-carbon source of electricity generation that people have utilized in Canada since the 1960s. In 2020, nuclear power contributed 14% to Canada’s electricity generation, with nuclear power plants only located in Ontario. British Columbia, on the other hand, does not have any nuclear power plants. As a result, nuclear power generates electricity without producing greenhouse gas emissions during operation. However, it does produce radioactive waste that one must store securely for thousands of years.
British Columbia has been exploring using liquefied natural gas (LNG) and renewable natural gas (RNG) to generate electricity as an alternative to nuclear power. Independent power producers in British Columbia have been investing in LNG and RNG projects as clean and reliable energy sources. LNG is a fossil fuel but generates fewer emissions than coal and oil. On the other hand, RNG comes from organic waste, such as agricultural waste and wastewater treatment. Therefore, it is a renewable energy source.
Wind power has seen significant growth in recent years as a relatively new source of electricity generation in Canada. In 2020, wind power contributed 5% to Canada’s power generation, with most of the capacity in Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta. However, British Columbia has limited wind power capacity, with only approximately 700 MW installed, generating a small percentage of electricity in the province.
Wind power is an attractive alternative to traditional fossil fuels because it generates electricity without producing greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, wind power has a smaller environmental footprint than fossil fuel-based power generation, making it an ideal renewable energy source. As a result, many provinces in Canada, including British Columbia, have been investing in wind power infrastructure to increase their renewable energy capacity.
Biomass is an organic matter that can work as a fuel source for generating electricity. It encompasses wood waste and agricultural byproducts, among other organic materials. However, in Canada, biomass contributed to less than 1% of electricity generation in 2020. In British Columbia, the province has limited biomass electricity generation capacity, primarily from wood waste.
Despite its low contribution to electricity generation, biomass is an attractive alternative to traditional fossil fuels since it is renewable and produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, biomass energy has the potential to play a significant role in reducing Canada’s carbon footprint by providing a source of renewable energy while also reducing waste. Additionally, biomass energy can provide a source of income for farmers and rural communities.
Solar power is a renewable energy source that converts sunlight into electricity through photovoltaic (PV) cells. The PV cells are semiconductors that convert sunlight into direct current (DC) electricity. An inverter then converts the DC electricity into alternating current (AC), which can power homes and businesses.
Canada has significant potential for solar power, especially in the country’s southern regions, where the climate is more suitable for solar energy generation. There has been a considerable increase in solar capacity in Canada in recent years, and it will continue growing in the coming years. However, in 2020, solar power only accounted for less than 1% of Canada’s electricity generation, with most of the capacity in Ontario and Quebec.
British Columbia has limited solar power capacity, with only about 10 MW installed. That is due to the province’s location, which receives less sunlight than other regions in Canada. However, the area has recently increased its solar capacity, with several community solar projects and net-zero buildings utilizing solar power.
While solar power has significant potential in Canada, it currently accounts for less than 1% of the country’s electricity generation. British Columbia has limited solar power capacity, but the province has taken steps to increase its solar capacity in recent years. As Canada transitions to a more sustainable and low-carbon economy, solar power will play a more significant role in the country’s electricity generation mix.
Canada has set ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a low-carbon economy. In 2015 Canada signed the Paris Agreement, committing to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. In December 2020, the Canadian government released a new climate plan to exceed these targets and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
The government’s plan includes a range of measures to reduce emissions in the electricity sector, such as phasing out traditional coal-fired power plants, investing in renewable energy, and increasing energy efficiency. The plan also includes a commitment to developing a clean electricity grid by 2035, which would require a significant increase in renewable energy generation across the country.
British Columbia’s climate plan, called CleanBC, sets targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to a low-carbon economy. The project is committed to generating 93% of the province’s electricity from clean or renewable sources by 2025, with the remaining 7% coming from natural gas-fired generation. CleanBC also includes measures to promote energy efficiency and electrification of transportation and buildings.
Impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted electricity generation in Canada and British Columbia. According to the National Energy Board, electricity demand in Canada declined by 2.7% in 2020, mainly due to reduced commercial and industrial activity. This demand reduction led to decreased electricity generation, with many power plants reducing their output or shutting down temporarily.
In British Columbia, electricity demand declined by 4.7% in 2020, significantly reducing commercial and industrial demand. However, the decline in demand was offset by an increase in residential demand, as more people stayed home due to pandemic-related restrictions. As a result, BC Hydro did not reduce its hydroelectric output significantly, and there was no need for additional natural gas-fired generation.
Hydroelectricity dominates the electricity generation mix in Canada and British Columbia, with natural gas-fired generation being the second-largest source. Nuclear, wind, biomass, and solar comprise a smaller share of the electricity mix. Canada and British Columbia have set ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a low-carbon economy, with the electricity sector playing a critical role in achieving these goals.
There will be a need to invest in renewable energy sources and increase energy efficiency to reduce emissions further. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of flexible and resilient electricity systems that can adapt to changing demand patterns. As such, a need to rethink the traditional electricity grid model and explore new ways to integrate renewable energy sources and distributed energy resources may be necessary.