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Canada Makes Power Moves to Decarbonize its Grid

Jarret Adams's picture

Jarret Adams is an independent consultant to the energy industry. He has more than 20 years of international professional experiene in journalism and communications.

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  • Nov 24, 2015

Electricity Generation in Canada

The government of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, announced November 23 it had banned coal-fired power generation “a first in North America and a significant step in the fight against climate change,” according to a press release.

Ontario shut down the last of its coal-fired power plants in 2014, about eight months before the deadline it had set 11 years before. “Ontario is the first jurisdiction in North America to fully eliminate coal as a source of electricity generation,” the provincial government announced at the time.

 With the upcoming UN climate change conference slated to begin at the end of November, Ontario provides an excellent example of how the province managed its transition away from fossil fuels to low-carbon energy sources. Ontario’s strong base of reliable nuclear energy and hydroelectric power helped smooth the transition but other Canadian provinces may find the switch more difficult. 

“Getting off coal is the single largest climate change initiative undertaken in North America and is equivalent to taking up to seven million cars off the road,” said Bob Chiarelli, Ontario’s energy minister. It had been a significant endeavor considering that coal had represented 25 percent of the province’s electricity in 2003.

The renovation and restart of two Bruce Power reactors, which returned to service in 2012, helped put the province in a position to shut down its coal plants. Today the massive Bruce Power nuclear plant has a capacity of 6,300 megawatts (MW), enough to power nearly 5 million households and is the world’s largest operating nuclear plant, according to the Canadian Nuclear Association. 

“Ontario has shown it is possible to close down coal-fired generating facilities, which emit massive amounts of harmful greenhouse gases, while stimulating the economy through nuclear projects,” said Duncan Hawthorne, Bruce Power’s president and CEO and a vocal proponent of nuclear energy in the fight against climate challenge. 

Ontario Power Generation, a government-owned utility, operates the province’s two other large nuclear plants, Darlington and Pickering, with a combined capacity of 6,600 MW. All together 18 of Canada’s 19 operating reactors are located in Ontario.

As a result, about 90 percent of Ontario’s electricity in 2014 came from low-carbon sources, including 62 percent from nuclear energy and 24 percent from hydro. Most of the remainder came from wind power. This rivals France and Sweden, often cited as leaders in low-carbon energy.

The rapid expansion of wind power in Ontario also played an important role in helping phase out coal. Ontario is expected to have over 5,000 MW of wind power capacity by the end of this year, a meteoric rise from less than 50 MW a decade ago, according to the Canadian Wind Energy Association

Canada is fortunate that it can generate more than 60 percent of its power from hydro. Together with other renewables and nuclear, more than 80 percent of Canada’s electricity came from low-carbon sources in 2014. The US burned fossil fuels for two-thirds of its electricity last year making it a laggard compared to its northern neighbor.

Some Canadian provinces are even more blessed with hydropower potential, making its grid low-carbon by design. Quebec’s electricity is about 99 percent hydro, and the province also exports some of its power to energy-poor New England. British Columbia gets about 86 percent of its power from hydro and has implemented a carbon tax to reduce emissions.

Prairie Promises

But in prairie provinces such as Alberta and Saskatchewan, hydro’s potential is more limiteed. These provinces will likely need to invest in other low-carbon sources, such as wind and nuclear, to reduce their power sector emissions. 

Both provinces recently announced initiatives to expand renewables for power generation. 

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley announced a plan on November 22 to replace two-thirds of its coal power with renewables, primarily wind, by 2030. Natural gas would provide the rest, representing the lion’s share of base-load power generation meaning that it is available continuously. 

According to the plan, Alberta aims to get 30 percent of it electricity from renewables by 2030. It also calls for a carbon tax and a cap on emissions from the oil sands. But Alberta will have a steeper hill to climb than Ontario as it gets more than half of its electricity from coal-fired plants.

Just one week prior, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall announced that the province aims to produce half of the its electricity with renewables, including wind, solar, geothermal and hydro, by 2030.

Wall told the CBC: “We just think because of the advancements in renewable technologies, the mix towards renewables can be much greater.” The government-owned SaskPower later detailed its expansion plans and said it would cost approximately $1.5 billion for the additional renewable generation.

In 2014, SaskPower inaugurated the first post-combustion carbon capture and storage (CCS) retrofit for a coal-fired plant at its Boundary Dam facility in southern Saskatchewan as a way to reduce emissions while still using its abundant coal resources. 

With Saskatchewan producing 15 percent of the worlds uranium, SaskPower has also explored the possibility of building a new nuclear plant to provide base-load power from a low-carbon source 

While there is still a long road ahead, Canada’s progress toward decarbonizing its electricity grid, with Ontario leading the way, offers a compelling example for other leading economies looking to do the same.

Photo: Bruce Power; Illustration: Canadian Nuclear Association.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 26, 2015

So the Canadian experience mirrors the world: regions which embraced nuclear power have had low-carbon electricity for years, while those that embraced fossil fuel will continue to belch CO2 and pollution into the air, mitigated slightly going forward with low-penetration renewables.

Good article.

Jarret Adams's picture
Jarret Adams on Nov 26, 2015

Thanks Nathan.

Yes, that is what real world experience shows. Renewables are still very important, but decarbonizing a nation’s grid does better with help from baseload low-carbon such as nuclear and hydro.

Jarret Adams's picture
Thank Jarret for the Post!
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