On the grid

Today I would like to present a brief overview on the methods behind generating Canada’s electricity and their associated contributions to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In 2018, Canada produced just under 650 terawatt hours of electricity. This is the amount of electricity one would need to power a single 5W lightbulb for 14,840,182,650 years. Okay, perhaps that’s not the best way to put it in perspective… But nonetheless that’s a lot of electricity! So where does it come from?

Canada’s electricity is generated from one of the following eight fuel types:

GHG-emitting sources
  • Oil and Diesel
  • Natural Gas
  • Coal
  • Biomass
Zero emissions (clean energy)
  • Solar
  • Wind
  • Hydro
  • Nuclear

It is important to note that for any of the clean energy sources, while they are associated with no emissions during electricity production, a life-cycle assessment would likely reveal GHG emissions during manufacturing, transportation, etc. Typically energy sources are divided into non-renewable and renewable sources but I’ve elected to categorize them according to whether or not they emit GHGs while producing electricity, largely because there is significant debate on whether biomass and nuclear energies are renewable. While wind, solar, and hydro rely on well-defined renewable resources, arguments can be made for and against biomass and nuclear as non-renewable resources. Biomass is derived from organic matter (e.g., wood, or crop waste), and thus the renewable nature of biomass is reliant on us replanting the feedstocks at the same rate as our usage.

For nuclear energy, the fuel (namely uranium deposit) is a finite resource within Earth, which would exclude nuclear energy from being a renewable resource. In addressing the finitude of nuclear fuel, one can make the argument that if considering the total amount of uranium deposit (including that which is labelled unextractable presently), then the supply of nuclear energy would certainly last for 5 billion years, which is likely the time span at which point the sun will die. This isn’t even considering the fact that well before the sun dies, our life-giving star will be heating up and will make earth so hot the oceans will reach their boiling point, but I digress.

Below we can see the percent contribution of each fuel source to electricity generated in 2016. Solar and oil/diesel are at 0.5% each in this chart.

The shares between the eight sources have not changed too much since 2016, although coal has been reduced to less than 7.5%, and only 4 provinces still have an electricity supply from coal (Alberta and Saskatchewan have a provincial supply of around 40% each coming from coal, Nova Scotia is just under 50%, and New Brunswick stands at 17%). I was personally a bit surprised to learn that solar power still makes up such a small percentage of the overall electricity production in Canada.

It’s important to acknowledge that the shares of electricity sources vary drastically from province/territory to province/territory. This, of course, is because the generation and distribution of electricity is under provincial jurisdiction. For example, in the Yukon 87.1% of the electricity comes from hydro, while in Nova Scotia only 9.3% is from hydro. In P.E.I, 98.3% of the electricity comes from wind energy sources, while in Quebec the percentage from wind energy is 5%.

This variance in fuel source is accompanied by an uneven distribution in GHG emissions, where coal is certainly the worst culprit. In fact, Alberta and Saskatchewan account for 81% of the total GHG emissions from electricity generation. In 2015 Alberta announced they will be working toward eliminating coal power generation by 2030, and the province is currently on track to reach this target by 2023. Though Saskatchewan has no such official plans, groups (environmental organizations, specific towns, etc.) within the province have received federal funding to work towards decreasing reliance on coal. Ontario already phased out coal to achieve a 100% coal-free electricity grid in 2014; this was accompanied by a drastic decrease in GHG emissions from electricity generation (44 megatonnes [MT] of carbon dioxide in 2000 to just 2 MT from the province in 2017).

Canada as a whole is definitely headed towards a greater share in clean energy sources, which holds some pretty exciting opportunities on the horizon. Out of all the sectors that contribute to GHG emissions, (at first glance) power generation definitely seems to be industry that Canada has effectively improved upon over the last 15-20 years, and continues to do so in working towards a green future. There are still a lot of aspects of our power generation and distribution processes that can be improved upon to ensure a reliable low-carbon electricity grid that is economically viable – a topic I will revisit in the future most likely. Happy Tuesday!