According to research from Abacus Data, nearly three-quarters of Atlantic Canadians believe that a transition to lower-carbon energy generation is both inevitable and beneficial. It’s a shift supporters say will provide economic benefits as well as environmental ones
Green energy technology has been part of the electricity grid along Canada’s eastern edge for decades.
In Nova Scotia in 2017, wind energy represented 12 per cent of total energy generation, biomass/geothermal represented four per cent, and hydro/tidal/wave energy represented nine per cent, according to Statistics Canada data. In New Brunswick, nuclear energy provided more than a third of the province’s total electricity generation, with hydroelectricity at 20 per cent, wind at seven per cent, and biomass/geothermal at four per cent.
Prince Edward Island is ahead of the game on wind energy, which makes up 98 per cent of the province’s power generation. Biomass/geothermal electricity makes up one of the remaining percentage points, and petroleum the other. However, much of the energy used in P.E.I. is actually generated in New Brunswick.
And in Newfoundland and Labrador, 94 per cent of the electricity generated in the province is via hydro power, with petroleum filling in most of the gaps with a small assist from biomass/geothermal and wind energy.
There is work underway in all four provinces to increase those percentages. Green energy was a topic of discussion at a recent meeting of the Council of Atlantic Premiers, where the political leaders of Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Quebec talked about replacing coal-fired energy in their provinces with green energy.
Hydro is responsible for nearly all of the electricity generated in Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact, billions of kilowatts of Labrador-produced power flow from the Upper Churchill Falls generating station through to Quebec every year. The province’s electrical capacity will become even more prolific when its 824 megawatt (MW) hydroelectric facility at Muskrat Falls is operational. Muskrat Falls—stage one of the 3,000 MW Lower Churchill Project—should be at full power later this year.
In addition to providing electricity to Newfoundland and Labrador, Muskrat Falls—via the Maritime Link connecting Cape Ray, N.L. to Cape Breton, N.S. —will also serve customers in Nova Scotia. The Link is expected to be instrumental in helping Nova Scotia reach its goal of 40 per cent renewable energy generation by the end of 2020.
Action on moving Nova Scotia away from coal had stalled in recent years, says Stephen Thomas, the energy campaign coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre, a Halifax-based environmental charity. But things are changing. “In the last two years, we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in the direction of that transition,” Thomas says. “The leadership being shown by frontline communities and by students and young people with things like the climate strike, and the action taking place all over Canada have really, I think, helped catalyze a moment around taking action on climate change.”
Even though hydroelectricity is lauded as a renewable energy source, its development in Atlantic Canada has not been without its challenges.
The historic Upper Churchill Hydro Development has been a source of simmering resentment for years. In 1969, Newfoundland and Labrador—via crown corporation Churchill Falls (Labrador) Corporation—signed a long-term deal that guaranteed Hydro-Quebec approximately 31 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of power per year, starting at three-tenths of a cent per kilowatt hour and declining to two-tenths of a cent. The current residential rate for electricity in Quebec is 7.13 cents/kWh—the lowest in North America; Newfoundland Power residential customers, meanwhile, are paying more than 12 cents/kWh. The agreement ends in 2041.
The Muskrat Falls development has also been contentious: it has been plagued by delays and cost overruns and is the subject of a provincial inquiry into its sanctioning. The rates for electricity produced by the plant are expected to be much higher than current prices, and the provincial government is already talking with their federal counterparts about rate mitigation options for the province. Additionally, there are concerns—based on local Indigenous knowledge and research from Harvard University—that the land flooding done as part of the project will increase methylmercury rates in the wild foods that Indigenous people in Labrador have traditionally eaten and rely on for food security.
Challenges aside, hydroelectric power is certain to play a significant role in Atlantic Canada’s energy future.
Another renewable power source that the region has in abundance is wind. In Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, wind-powered electricity generation has been in use since the early 2000s. “In Nova Scotia, we already have one of the highest rates of wind energy in our electricity system,” says Thomas. The organization he represents, Ecology Action Centre, is calling for the province’s wind energy generation to more than double.
While Prince Edward Island imports much of its electricity, wind power generation is growing in the province. According to the P.E.I. Energy Corporation, the province’s wind farms produced a record 75,531 megawatt hours of energy in February 2019 thanks to a blustery winter. And in May 2019, the provincial government said that about a quarter of P.E.I.’s energy is produced by wind over the course of a year, with annual variations. With another wind farm expected to come online in the province this year, its contribution to the provincial grid will only increase.
New Brunswick is also aggressively pursuing wind energy generation. According to Colleen d’Entremont, Natural Forces—a private independent power producer that delivers renewable energy projects in partnership with local communities across Canada—has worked on wind energy projects in Nova Scotia and is developing a project in New Brunswick.
D’Entremont is president of Atlantica Centre for Energy, an organization dedicated to a sustainable regional energy sector.
“There’s a great opportunity for private companies to embark on renewable energy projects and own, operate and maintain these plants and then sell that electricity to municipal electricity utilities as well as the provincial ones,” says d’Entremont.
ECONOMIES OF SCALE
Smaller-scale electricity generation does have its challenges. There have been a number of small 50 kilowatt and 100 kilowatt wind projects in Atlantic Canada, says Rob Sedgwick of Nova Scotia-based SAGE Energy Inc. However, wind can be a tough market because the price point is often not cost effective unless it’s a large-scale project, he says.
“On a small wind scale, it’s very difficult to find an economic model that works, especially without incentives or grants or input money to offset the trajectory,” says Sedgwick. Part of the challenge is that much of the manufacturing for wind technology is happening outside of North America, which increases the cost of getting equipment to Atlantic Canada.
There are also maintenance costs to consider. “These are moving machines with wear and tear, and they require servicing,” he says. Some of these problems are reduced with solar energy, which is increasingly popular for smaller-scale renewable options. More and more, Sedgwick says SAGE is providing solar power to its customers in Nova Scotia and beyond.
As interest in solar energy has increased in recent years, the technology has also improved and become more accessible. For example, in Nova Scotia, the Solar Electricity for Community Buildings program helps non-profits add solar energy generation capabilities to their buildings and allows them to sell excess energy to their local utility. The program had 26 successful applicants in 2019.
Incentivizing investment in sustainable electricity generation is an important part of getting people on board, Sedgwick says. “We’ve proven that model,” he says, pointing to rebates for solar systems introduced in Nova Scotia in 2018 which led to inquiries to his company increasing as much as fivefold.
Some of the renewable energy solutions for Atlantic Canada are still in the development stages but hold exciting potential, in particular for the more remote areas of the region.
For example, wind isn’t the only natural force that could be used to generate energy. The Bay of Fundy’s famous tides are being investigated as a potential source of energy. Two tidal energy companies—Sustainable Marine Energy and Minas Tidal LP—are working together on a technology that uses turbines on a floating platform instead of on the ocean floor for energy generation.
The eventual goal is for tidal energy to add nine megawatts of energy generation to the Nova Scotia electricity grid. The Pempa’q In-stream Tidal Energy Project is set to begin this year.
Alberta-based Jupiter Hydro has also received the province’s permission to work on generating electricity from the Bay of Fundy tides, and also plans to use floating platforms for turbines versus underwater models. An earlier project, the Cape Sharp Tidal Venture, failed when an involved company entered creditor protection, and its turbine is still sitting in the Minas Passage.
Another energy solution is one that has not always been considered green: nuclear power. Last December, New Brunswick, Ontario and Saskatchewan agreed to work together to build small modular nuclear reactors—smaller reactors that some consider safer than current nuclear plants because of their reduced size. The units can work individually or as part of a larger unit, which makes them theoretically more easily expanded and means they could be a future option for providing power to remote parts of the country.
“That, quite frankly, probably holds the most promise for our long-term emission reduction targets,” says d’Entremont of small modular reactors. Both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have reduced emissions considerably over the past 15 years or so, she says, from about 20 megatons to about 14 megatons. However, new technology is needed to get them to aspirational targets like four megatons by 2050, and she says this is where the reactors could come in.
In addition to serving needs in Atlantic Canada, there is considerable international interest in small modular reactors, says d’Entremont. Work on the technology being done in New Brunswick could serve not just other parts of the country but the rest of the world.
For now, small reactors are still in the development stage. In addition to any technological hurdles, there are also societal ones to overcome—nuclear reactors don’t emit greenhouse gases but do carry risk due to the creation of nuclear waste. Abacus research shows that awareness of nuclear’s lower-carbon status is low, but also found openness to exploring nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels.
Parties at different parts of the green energy tech industry in Atlantic Canada agree that more, and better, education on the realities of sustainable electricity generation is needed to keep the industry moving forward.
“I think with the momentum in it, there could be a proportionate amount of good information out there,” Sedgwick says. “But I also think that there’s a proportionate amount of missing information or lacking information.”
That education has to happen at all levels, he says, including at the contractor level to ensure that people who do invest in renewable solutions have a good experience. The investment in sustainable energy generation also can’t be limited to individual choices. It has to come from all levels of government and from industry in order to represent a true sea change.
Part of the challenge of that education is tied to the fact that in some ways, change has come slowly to this region. D’Entremont points to the smart metering and smart grid technologies that are well established in other regions but still unfamiliar to many consumers here. “That’s exactly where we come in, in that most of our day-to-day work is on educating the public about these issues, to help them make informed decisions, and to help them understand the complexity of the energy sector,” she says.
Complexity aside, interest in renewable energy and off-grid energy is growing. “I think there’s a genuine interest in Atlantic Canada in wanting to have as minimal an impact on the environment as possible,” says d’Entremont. “And [Atlantic Canadians] see renewable energy as one way of reducing their overall impact.” •