Inside Atlantic Canada’s renewable energy revolution

Inside Atlantic Canada’s renewable energy revolution

Atlantic Canada’s energy future has undergone a makeover thanks to the advance of renewable energy development in the region

As society demands that action be taken to develop more sources of renewable energy to cut down on carbon emissions that are contributing to warming the planet, the Atlantic provinces are altering their energy profiles to incorporate more green sources for their energy needs. And some of those provinces have set ambitious targets for 2015 and 2020.

But making the switch from fossil fuels to renewables comes with its fair share of difficulties – whether it is how the energy is transmitted, attracting investment for energy infrastructure, or contending with public expectations for improved environmental standards while balancing electricity price increases that can come when more renewable energy is hooked up to provincial grids.

The rapid pace set by Atlantic Canada’s provincial governments to change their energy mix has resulted in impressive growth in the renewable energy sector, but it’s also created plenty of challenges and unrealized potential.

Almost there
In 2010, Nova Scotia committed itself to a bold goal. Renewable energy would meet 25 per cent of its electricity generation by 2015 and 40 per cent of its electricity generation by 2020. According to a March 2015 Electricity Review Report, renewables now account for 22 per cent of electricity generation, which is expected to reach 25 per cent once the 126-megawatt South Canoe wind farm in the Annapolis Valley goes into production. (Editor’s note: the wind farm did so in late June.) By 2020, Nova Scotia expects to exceed its green energy targets. Renewables will account for 50 per cent of electricity generation by 2020, and 27 per cent of electricity-generating energy will be domestically produced.

Wind makes up the largest component of renewables in Nova Scotia’s energy profile, accounting for 10 per cent of the total. Hydro and tidal energy together account for nine per cent of the electricity generated in Nova Scotia and biomass contributes three per cent to the total energy of the province.

The proposed Maritime Link (a $1.6 billion project which will see a 170-kilometre subsea cable transmitting hydropower from Newfoundland and Labrador’s Muskrat Falls to Woodbine, Nova Scotia by 2017) is a substantial component in attaining the 2020 renewable energy goal. Once in operation, it will be responsible for generating between eight per cent and 10 per cent of the province’s electricity.

Beyond the cost of the Maritime Link project, the Nova Scotia government is hesitant to estimate the overall cost of adopting greener energy technologies. Instead, a Nova Scotia Department of Energy spokesperson offered another viewpoint: overall costs in bringing renewables on board should be compared to the costs of not meeting the targets. “Without our renewables targets, we would have been expected to comply with federal [greenhouse gas emissions] requirements and shut down our coal plants,” the spokesperson says. “This would have been an added cost to ratepayers of approximately $1 billion.”

Costs for electricity customers are expected to be in the one to two per cent range, roughly equivalent to a $20 increase in electricity bills, or a $40 increase for homes relying on electric heat.

Nova Scotia has historically been heavily reliant on coal to produce electricity, given the proximity of coal mines in the province. This makes the progress on its renewable energy program “an amazing success story”, according to Catherine Abreu, energy coordinator for Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre.

“Ontario gets so much praise for its coal phase-out. But coal was only responsible for 14 per cent of electricity generation when they decided to phase it out,” Abreu says. “In Nova Scotia, when we started our renewable energy development, coal was responsible for over 80 per cent of electricity generation in the province. Since 2010, we’ve reduced that to 60 per cent.” Nova Scotia will be one of only two provinces to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets this year, she added.

Nova Scotia’s tidal power potential is also generating increased interest, where the Bay of Fundy’s Minas Passage contains as much as 2,500 MW of potential that could be extracted without significant effects. Black Rock Tidal Power in Halifax is working on a $14 million project which aims to produce 2.5 MW of power when its turbine is deployed in the Bay of Fundy in April 2016. The federal government also awarded $6.3 million to Cape Sharp Tidal, owned by OpenHydro and Emera Inc., which will develop a 4 MW pilot tidal energy project in the Bay of Fundy.

However, tidal energy development is still in its infancy and important questions about it remain unanswered – the key ones being can the energy be harnessed without negatively impacting the Bay of Fundy’s ecosystem and whether tidal power can be produced in a way that gives investors a decent rate of return but also isn’t too costly for its customers.

On the move
Neighbouring New Brunswick has the same ambitious target as Nova Scotia when it comes to green energy. By 2020, it is aiming to have 40 per cent of its electricity generated from renewable sources. Renewable energy is already accounting for 31-to-32 per cent of the electricity produced in 2015, and NB Power’s director of marketing and communications Brent Staeben says the province is “well on the way to meeting” the 40 per cent goal.

However, New Brunswick’s journey to a greener energy future is taking a different route than Nova Scotia. Many would argue that nuclear energy isn’t green, and it certainly isn’t renewable, but it does not emit carbon dioxide and the 660-MW Point Lepreau nuclear power plant currently generates 35 per cent of the province’s electricity.

New Brunswick’s leading source of renewable energy is hydropower, with seven plants generating a total of 895 megawatts. Wind energy generates 294 megawatts, while biomass produced 38 megawatts of power. However, to add the extra eight-to-nine per cent it needs to reach its 40 per cent renewable energy target, NB Power has said it wants to involve cooperatives and First Nation communities to build and own wind farms, solar panels, small hydro projects, and biomass or biogas facilities. NB Power would buy the energy produced from these projects.

Overall, costs to introducing renewable sources to the grid are murky in New Brunswick, though Staeben acknowledged that $150 million was budgeted in 2012 for a 10- year period to prepare the electrical grid to carry energy generated from solar, wind, and other renewable sources.

New Brunswick’s greatest challenge in rethinking its electrical grid is the unique nature of energy usage in the province: New Brunswick has the highest electric baseboard heating penetration in North America outside of Quebec. Each winter, NB Power, which delivers electricity to 350,000 New Brunswick homes, businesses and facilities, grapples with meeting demand at two peak usage periods: mornings and evenings. In response, the province has launched an aggressive Smart Grid plan to reduce the amount of energy used in those peak periods.

The province also has to contend with a high proportion of the total energy load – typically higher than 30 per cent – that is used by energy-intensive industries such as mining and petroleum. “We’re really moving towards trying to reduce those peaks and shift the energy that’s being used to off-peak times,” Staeben says. The province has also initiated a program to purchase electricity from large industrial customers that generate renewable energy from their facilities in New Brunswick.

While adding more renewable energy into the provincial grid can lead to increases in electricity prices, New Brunswickers do seem to be keen to wean themselves off of fossil-fuel fired electricity generation. According to a nationwide poll conducted in March 2015, nearly 70 per cent of survey respondents in the province want a commitment to replace coal, oil and gas with renewable energy, while 70.2 per cent want a legally enforceable cap on carbon pollution. Most importantly, 63.5 per cent of those polled in New Brunswick disagreed that cheap energy is more important than negative effects on the environment.

Reality check
Not every jurisdiction in Atlantic Canada is ahead of the curve in implementing renewable energy on the grid. Prince Edward Island has had difficulty reaching bold renewable energy targets set in 2008 by former premier Robert Ghiz. Though the province expected to hit a 30 per cent target for renewables in its energy grid by now, only 25 per cent of its electricity today is generated by renewables. The renewable energy utopia promised by Ghiz in 2008 also anticipated 500 MW of wind power to be installed on the island; as of today, only 204 MW of wind power is in place.

The tiny island province is an example of the challenges jurisdictions face when they set large renewable energy targets. Hitting its target hinged on a massive increase in wind energy development. But some private developers demanded higher prices for their wind power than the province was willing to pay. And as the global recession wore on, finding developers willing to take on wind energy projects in P.E.I. proved difficult.

To be fair, the plan hasn’t been a total failure. Wind currently provides nearly 30 per cent of the island’s electricity, a substantial amount for a province with a population of roughly 146,000 people. But that amount is unlikely to increase in the near future due to the inability to store excess wind energy and the need to have an energy backup during low-wind periods when there isn’t enough wind power to meet the grid’s needs. This backup energy comes largely from New Brunswick’s grid. P.E.I.’s Maritime Electric receives some 30 MW of baseload energy from New Brunswick.

Despite the struggles P.E.I. has faced in growing its green energy base, Catherine Abreu is impressed by what the province has achieved. “The remarkable thing is that none of the electricity generated on island is using fossil fuels,” Abreu says. “But they rely heavily on New Brunswick energy imports. They’re up against the limits of what they can do to increase renewable energy use. They dump wind energy a lot, and it’s a major issue that P.E.I. is trying to deal with…by exploring storage options.”

P.E.I. is also working on adding more biofuels to its energy mix. The province had aimed for 10 MW of electricity to be generated by biofuels by 2015. The provincial government is contracting with two local firms to build biomass heating plants at 21 schools, health care institutions and correctional facilities. Ten plants are now operating, and 11 more will be built within the next year.

As for the state of renewable energy development in Canada’s most easterly province, Newfoundland and Labrador has no stated target to increase renewable energy. However, advancing renewable energy development isn’t as much of an issue here as it is in, say, Nova Scotia where electricity is still predominately coal-fired. In Newfoundland and Labrador hydropower accounts for over 90 per cent of provincial electricity generation. The province’s total energy needs amount to 2,400 the province’s total energy needs amounts to 2,400 MW. The province is in the process of adding more hydropower to its energy mix through the Muskrat Falls project. When it’s completed in 2017, Muskrat Falls will produce 824 MW of hydropower and through the Maritime Link project, will allow the province to sell some of that power to customers in Atlantic Canada.

1 Comment to “Inside Atlantic Canada’s renewable energy revolution”

  1. Barry Gallant // July 27, 2017 at 4:45 pm // Reply

    Hi Jax:
    Very interesting article, when you wrote this in 2015 and reading it now, things are starting to change. I am making the switch in my career to become a renewable energy consultant specializing in PV Solar. I believe we are at that pivot point to becoming a distributed and collaborated energy network, where you are going to see businesses and residence investing in renewable options on their homes and business. The EV markets are going to take off in the next few years and how are we as a province going to support that, the answer is solar.

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