After 30 years of skepticism and denial, it is becoming increasing clear to more and more people that the key issue for both the 2019 election in Canada and the 2020 election in the USA is mitigating climate change. That depends on nothing less than shifting the global energy supply from the current mix of 80 per cent fossil fuels to 80 per cent clean energy; i.e. electrification of everything possible.
If people here and around the world can’t get insurance on the homes and jobs they lose to violent weather and perennial flooding, and can’t find a safe place for their families to live, it won’t matter how much debt they have, or how they pay for healthcare in the US, or how big the military is, or what kind of legal resolution we apply to SNC-Lavalin.
We must not let ourselves be distracted by the many important but lesser issues. If we care about our grandchildren, this election must be about how best to meet Canada’s emission reduction targets while best utilizing our favorable position in many types of energy to benefit the world.
Since 1900, oil became the source of energy for 95 per cent of all types of transportation and heavy equipment for farming to forestry to construction. But now every company around the world is racing to electrify those products as fast as possible. Electric vehicles and equipment will add to the electricity generation load, but not proportionately because most will make better use of the base-load electricity already available at night when electricity demand and rates are lower.
BC, Manitoba, Quebec and Newfoundland are blessed with geography that allowed them to get 95 per cent of their electricity from hydro (waterpower). Ontario is 57 per cent nuclear and closed our last coal plant in 2014. Nova Scotia is about to replace their coal power with power from a new hydro plant at Muskrat Falls Labrador. But hydro, wind and solar simply can’t replace the coal plants in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Advanced nuclear is #2 on Bill Gates list of the top ten breakthrough technologies. Co-generation uses 1/3rd less energy than making electricity and heat separately. Co-generation using Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) has enormous potential to eliminate up to 60 per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions through:
- District heating of residential and commercial buildings (done extensively in Europe)
- Light manufacturing districts
- Heavy Industry (Cement, fertilizers, chemicals)
- Replace 8,000 MW of coal power in Alberta and Saskatchewan (Ontario has 9,300 MW of nuclear)
- SMRs could replace natural gas heat for oil sands extraction, upgrading and refining, and thereby eliminate the emissions stigma that has been hanging over Canada’s abundant proven oil reserves.
The concept of a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) using molten salt as a moderator was proven in 1964 but set aside “because we had lots of coal, oil and gas”. It is now under aggressive development by Terrestrial Energy of Oakville Ontario and several other companies. Terrestrial Energy has approval from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and financial support from the US Department of Energy to build a prototype reactor at the former Atomic Energy Canada site at Chalk River, Ontario. SMRs are expected to be commercially available by the mid to late 2020s. Google Terrestrial Energy to learn more.
SMRs will be fail-safe. They will shut down without human intervention if they lose control power, or if temperature or pressure becomes too high. Because they can extract 85 per cent of the energy from the uranium fuel vs five per cent in earlier reactors, they will produce 80 per cent less nuclear waste, use up existing stockpiles of nuclear waste as fuel and thereby extend the life of uranium reserves. Their small size enables faster and cheaper mass production. SMRs can be widely deployed to reduce transmission cost.
Getting off oil will take time
Transportation creates 24 per cent of Canada’s emissions. Every transportation and heavy equipment company around the world is racing to electrify their products as fast as possible. The massive change to the limited manufacturing capacity and material supply dictates it will take from 2020 to 2050 or 2060 to complete. But we should be able to meet emissions reduction targets for 2030 and 2050.
Short-term Inventories and prices will go up and down as always, but global reserves of oil will be depleted in 50 to 60 years and reserves owned by the biggest users (USA, EU, China) will be depleted in less than 20 years. Canada will soon be one of only six countries and the only stable democracy capable of producing the oil the world will need in diminishing quantities for the rest of this century.
Canada, with 0.5 per cent of the world’s population is blessed with ten per cent of the world’s proven reserves of oil and one per cent of the proven reserves of natural gas. That means Canada should be exporting more oil, but we would be wise to conserve our natural gas for future use in this big cold country. Export demand for oil will increase as our (one million barrels per day) domestic demand decreases. With a modest increase in production from 4.6 to 6 million barrels per day, Canada could supply some of the oil the world will need for at least 75 years to 2095. That will require one more pipeline.
Building pipelines is a complex and frustrating job. But Canada has had more success than the USA. The Trans-Mountain pipeline expansion was proposed in 2013 and construction started six years later in August 2019. That is five years less than the Keystone XL pipeline that was proposed in 2008 and approved 11 years later by the Nevada State Supreme Court. Both Conservatives and Liberals contributed to that success. The US will need our oil but, depending on US politics, KXL could be cancelled again.
The Eagle Spirit Energy corridor from Alberta to Prince Rupert BC is the shortest route and provides the least problematic access to open ocean. The First Nations lawyer heading the Eagle Spirit proposal claims to have approval of 95 per cent of First Nations on the route. If KXL eventually gets built, Eagle Spirit would just eliminate the need to ship up to a million barrels per day by rail. That is 1,400 outbound tank-cars per day and another 1,400 tank-cars returning. Pipelines mean less accident risk, less spill risk, less disruption to humans and wildlife, less energy and less emissions compared to shipping by rail.
- Mitigating climate change is priority #1A. Just three things could reduce Canada’s emissions by 84 per cent: electric transportation, and advanced nuclear power coupled with co-generation of heat.
- The Greens and the NDP mislead voters with their irrational faith in wind and solar power, irrational fear or silence on nuclear power, and their failure to support oil pipelines that remain critical for Canada and the world. They have not acknowledged or learned from Germany’s failed attempt to use wind and solar power to replace nuclear. The Green Party of Finland endorses nuclear power.
- The Conservatives support both nuclear energy and development of our oil and gas resources but are weak on electric vehicles and initiatives to reduce energy demand and emissions. And they misrepresent the facts about the carbon tax. If we don’t mitigate consumer demand for oil and gas, it will be much more difficult and costly for our energy producers to reduce emissions from production. Quite simply, we can’t dump all responsibility for emissions on our energy suppliers.
- The Liberals are already supporting development of advanced nuclear, wind, and solar energy in the right places, and responsible development of our oil and gas resources and pipelines. The Liberals already have the carbon tax to provide the broadest possible incentive to reduce emissions. By making their rebate bigger than their tax, consumers and industry reduce demand for fossil fuels.
- At election time all parties try to seduce voters with minor tax cuts or benefit gains. But we voters must decide if we want a bit more money in our pocket to buy more stuff we can live without, or do we want to invest in livable communities with good roads, public safety, modern hospitals, flood protection, affordable housing, and good public transit, all powered by clean energy?
Conservatives governed for ten years. They made progress on many files, but they didn’t solve all the problems. Like every Prime Minister, Stephen Harper was liked by many and loathed by others.
However today, our government faces even bigger headwinds with the most disruptive world leader since WW2 and a barrage of hostile foreign and domestic operators using the explosion of new digital and social media tools to disrupt public opinion, planning and elections.
In the face of all that, over the last four years, the Trudeau government advanced the EU trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Trade agreement, and by all expert accounts did the best job possible on NAFTA. On pipeline construction, they completed the reversal of Enbridge Line 9 to bring Alberta oil to Montreal refineries, completed the Enbridge Line 3 expansion to Wisconsin and Sarnia, and started the Trans-Mountain expansion in half the time taken to start Keystone XL in the USA. And while our biggest trading partner was going in the opposite direction, our government was supporting the shift to electrified transportation and to clean wind, solar and nuclear energy to reduce our GHG emissions. And Canada continues to do well on every international ranking including economic growth and the ratio of debt to GDP; except for per capita energy use and emissions where we rank among the world’s highest.
As outlined earlier in this article, and as Dave Wilkin and Tim Lutton explain well in their excellent series of articles, there is much more to do. Justin Trudeau (age 48) and Andrew Scheer (age 40) are both credible and likable leaders with similar educations and strong family values. But as the incumbent, Trudeau and company have valuable experience in both international and domestic affairs, as well as world-wide recognition.
Changing not only the captain but all the officers on a small ship in the face of a perfect storm is a very bad idea. After four more years, Andrew Scheer will have more experience and Trump will be gone – – – or almost gone.
Hugh Holland is a retired engineering and manufacturing executive now living in Huntsville, Ontario.
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