British Columbia's environment and climate change minister has his work cut out for him. Last month, George Heyman committed to reduce B.C.’s greenhouse gas emissions 40 per cent below 2005 levels by the year 2030.
Through any lens, it is a tall order. To meet its goal, government will need to do nothing short of transform our communities and industries. Specifically, the province will need to convert everything that now runs on fossil fuels — home furnaces, vehicles, factories, the works — to instead run efficiently on clean and renewable electricity.
There is enormous inertia in the current system.
Enter Jae Mather. His industry association Clean Energy BC represents the interests of private-sector renewable power producers that today supply about 14 per cent of the province’s juice. According to the association, its members have to date invested more than $9 billion in British Columbia, while generating more than 10,000 construction jobs. (BC Hydro, the province’s crown utility, supplies the rest of the province’s electricity, with some imports.)
According to a new Clean Energy BC white paper, if we do what must be done to address climate change, British Columbia will easily consume the expected output of the massive Site C large hydro project now under construction—and then some. Mather’s members want to help deliver the needed electrons with wind turbines, solar farms, tidal turbines, and biomass and geothermal projects
We spoke with Mather on the eve of the Global Electrification Now summit that his association will host this week in Vancouver.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Disclosure: The interviewer had a business relationship with Clean Energy BC under its previous leadership in 2016.
Let’s start with the basics. What does it mean to electrify an economy for a large region like British Columbia?
Electrification is quite literally the process of switching everything that runs on fossil fuels to instead run on electricity. Instead of burning gasoline to move a vehicle forward, creating heat, which in turn moves a piston—which in turn moves the wheels—you switch to an electric motor, which does the same job much more efficiently with a different form of energy. Home heating offers another example. Instead of heating your home with a natural gas furnace, you generate that warmth with an electric heat pump.
Why would we do that?
In most places in the world, electrifying doesn’t lead to significant greenhouse-gas benefits right away, because so much of the electricity is supplied by fossil fuels. That is not the case in British Columbia. Our grid ranges between 93 and 97 per cent renewable energy. Because of that, we can electrify heating, transportation, and industry, and slash our emissions.
What will full electrification involve? How do you re re-engineer an economy so that is is fueled with other sources that don’t have all the impacts that fossil fuels do?
There is enormous inertia in the current system. You have a lot of vested interests—money and powerful organizations, that influence policy throughout the world. Here in British Columbia, oil consumption is still growing. Electrification is a profound philosophical, political, and economic challenge. But we have to do it. We are now just starting to understand that, without serious change, the current system will unravel itself.
Where should we start?
The big opportunities are in transportation, heating, and industry—those are the three major focus points. Transportation is already underway with electric vehicles, which are ramping up all over the world. The price point is crashing, the range is increasing, more types of vehicles are coming available. Similarly, heat pumps are 98 per cent less carbon intensive than a natural gas furnace.
But all of those things carry a price premium. What do we do about that?
There is a price premium, but it is artificial, because the full costs of fossil fuels are not included in their price we pay for them. Those who worry about subsidies should understand that, on a global basis, six times the global subsidies go into fossils fuels than go into renewable energy sources. Every buck spent on gasoline typically causes eight to ten bucks worth of costs on society and the environment. When you factor those costs, it it the fossil fuels that are getting subsidies. If they were removed, you would find that an electric car would be vastly cheaper. But it is not yet there, in pocketbook terms. Our economic models are not yet evolved to consider what we are doing out there. This is why the government needs to step in.
What will it take to spur the government of British Columbia to do that?
There are a variety of forces coming to bear. Take global policy—Canada has signed on to the Paris Agreement, and British Columbia has committed to do its part to help meet that. There are also political pressures. Here in B.C., the Green Party is keeping the NDP in power with a Confidence and Supply Agreement, which stipulates that government must Implement a climate action strategy to meet our targets. You have individuals inside the government that care about this enormously. Plus, you have macro trends coming from around the world. Leaders of very large companies now understand that ecological and economic collapse is not good for business. The literacy and understanding is growing.
How is British Columbia doing on climate change?
British Columbia has a climate strategy coming out in later this year that will call for 40 per cent greenhouse gas reduction by 2030. Then we will have the promised Energy Roadmap that will describe how we are going to get there. We have signed up to lots of things, but emissions are not going down. In Canada, greenhouse gas emissions are only 2.2 per cent down from 2006. About 25 per cent of those reductions have come from British Columbia. We have stepped up when it comes to signing documents, but not when it comes to following through.
Your new white paper details the greenhouse gas reduction opportunities you see in transportation, heating, and industry, and the associated electricity requirements. What did you find?
The really big one is home heating, the greenhouse gas reduction that we can make from heat pumps. It’s gigantic. By 2030 we can knock nine million tonnes of carbon pollution off our target by converting from natural gas furnaces to heat pumps. This is equivalent to reducing B.C.’s current emissions by almost 15 per cent. Electrified transportation is also really interesting, but it takes a long time. You have to wait for vehicles to run through their service life.
And how much new electricity would we need to electrify those things?
Heat pumps alone could require an additional 13,921 gigawatt hours or 21 per cent more electricity in B.C. Transportation could require an additional 6,554 gigawatt hours, or 7.9 per cent more electricity than we generate today. All of these bits and pieces lead to a requirement for a gigantic amount of new power.
What about Site C? A good deal of the outrage around that project was rooted in the understanding that we won’t even need the electricity it will produce.
Site C is expected to produce around 5,100 gigawatt hours per year, which is about 7.7 per cent of B.C.’s current electricity production. B.C. produced around 66,144 GWh in 2017. By the time that facility comes online and generating electricity, we will need way, way more.
Your white paper concludes that electrifying transportation alone will consume all of that project’s power. And then there is LNG. The government would still like to develop a liquified natural gas industry. What would that do to the electricity supply and demand equation?
If we roll out a small LNG facility, like the 13 MT facility that LNG Canada is already planning, and then fully electrify it, we would need 11,032 GWh or 16.7 per cent more electricity than we have today. Looking at the larger natural gas and LNG plans that are highly likely, we see this amount grow exponentially.
Is it possible for the province to build out an LNG sector and still meet its climate commitments?
Unless we radically electrify our gas and LNG sectors, we are going to be adding between seven and 33 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. We can either add 33 million tonnes of emissions to our carbon budget with LNG, or we could add nine million tonnes if we fully electrify that industry. Electrification is the only way we can build that industry.
Has the provincial government acknowledged that?
The government is talking about partial electrification, using language like “best in class” to describe these proposed plants. But if you have a hole in your boat, you have to fix it or you will sink. That is what is going to happen with these LNG plants. Unless we electrify these new sectors, they will be make it impossible to meet our targets. You can't partially fill a hole in your boat and think you will still be floating. We have to do this right.
Won’t the government have a difficult time requiring the LNG industry to electrify?
From a pure capitalist perspective, if we electrify our LNG, we will have the lowest-carbon LNG in the world. When we start to rebalance the markets to reflect the full costs of carbon, we need our plants to be the ones still selling on the world market, because they will be the best. We don’t want to have someone else, like Qatar, for example doing it. That country is looking into electrifying LNG plants with massive solar farms. We can make use of our our existing grid, we can capitalize on our assets. We badly need that leadership.
Is BC Hydro planning for electrification?
BC Hydro's forecast for growth does not take climate change into account, because we still do not have the policies in place that they need to create a more realistic forecast. The BC Utilities Commission is looking at it from a specific focal point.
What focal point is that?
They are looking at [B.C.’s future power needs] based upon previous and existing policy. Although they know that new policies are coming, these are not taken into account until they are fully in place and time has passed that enables them to adjust their plans and perspectives. The energy and climate ministries are in silos. We are not going to reach our targets in silos. That is why the government is looking at the Energy Roadmap. That will be essential part of this puzzle. Because at the moment in British Columbia we have a load forecast that is simply incompatible with our climate goals.
Which is where your sector comes in, I’m guessing?
We do need the energy but we don’t want or need Site C type projects. Other renewables are much better options, for cost and speed, risk management, and local First Nations economic empowerment. Our 15 largest members have ready, or near-ready, 3.1 gigawatt peak [the theoretical maximum output] worth of projects in British Columbia. This would be a mixture of wind, solar, geothermal, run of river, and wave power that could be built for $8.8 billion. This is less than Site C, and would include 30 First Nations partners across the province. These costs are only dropping, and there are ample opportunities for even more cost efficiencies with improvements in procurement and permitting models.
Critics would say that, with the exception of geothermal, all of those electricity sources are intermittent electricity sources. How you you reconcile that?
BC Hydro, with its dams and infrastructure, is an incredible battery. These dams store power in the form of water, and release it when we need it. BC Hydro’s grid could support up to 45 per cent intermittent power even without the addition of batteries. A lot of countries are already at 50 to 60 per cent and they can handle it. Also, if we one day have a million electric vehicles, well when they are parked, those are a million batteries. We could have a gigawatt worth of energy stored in those parked vehicles. When it comes to wind, waves, and sun, we are blessed with a lot of assets. We should be using those assets to electrify the economy and create the lowest life cycle carbon goods and services in the world.
What about conservation and efficiency? Will we need really all this electricity if we, for example, meet the province’s goal that all new buildings will be net zero energy ready by 2032?
Energy efficiency is a vital piece of this, you reduce the need, and then generate what you need with the least-impact means possible. But if we want to electrify our industries, that is vastly more power that we will need. Radical electrification is required to meet our goals. Also remember that between now and 2030, there will be more people, more buildings, more industry. It isn't a flat line. To properly electrify our economy, we will need more power.
You earlier cited a number of forces that are driving the trend to electrification. Which is the most significant in your mind?
The global shift to cleaner energy sources and taking action on climate change is the biggest driver. Look, we gotta speed up here. The world is accelerating fast, at a speed not seen before. It is better to disrupt yourself than to one day find yourself being disrupted. In the end, it doesn't matter what Canada thinks, or what British Columbia thinks. It is what the world is doing that matters. You can’t wait for the world to run past you and say, “Wait, what’s that?” because then you will have lost the opportunity.
Clean Energy BC will host the Global Electrification Now = Low Carbon Future Summit this Thursday, June 14, in Vancouver.