The Canadian Renewable Energy Association (CanREA) is on a mission to decarbonize electricity generation in Canada while doubling output. By ‘decarbonize,’ CanREA means avoiding energy sources that produce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—a leading cause of climate change—and focusing instead on affordable, abundant, untapped wind and solar energy.
The national non-profit member association wants to pivot from GHG-emitting fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources, particularly wind and solar. In an ideal scenario, CanREA would like to see solar and wind generating at least a third of Canada’s electricity by 2050. Such a move would dramatically reduce GHG emissions while creating jobs and economic opportunities, says the association.
Details of this ambitious plan are spelled out in the report, “Powering Canada’s Journey to Net-Zero: CanREA’s 2050 Vision.” The document suggests ways to ramp up electricity production while achieving national GHG benchmarks. The Government of Canada has committed to a 40 per cent reduction in GHG emissions by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, and aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
The 2050 Vision document “is grounded in the notion that the time for action is now. The sense of urgency is something we tried to stress throughout, and the scale and speed of the action we’re calling for is really unprecedented in Canada. We think it’s reasonable and doable, but only if we get started now,” states Brandy Giannetta, CanREA Vice-President of Policy, Regulatory and Government Affairs.
CanREA was founded in July 2020, through a merger of the Canadian Wind Energy Association and Canadian Solar Industries Association. The amalgamation also saw the fledgling organization expand its mandate to include energy storage. Based in Ottawa, CanREA has “a pretty diverse membership base” consisting of everybody from “rooftop solar panel installers, all the way up to large equipment manufacturers,” says Giannetta.
CanREA advocates for members and “works toward favourable policy and regulatory environments, so we can realize the benefits that wind, solar, and energy storage bring to Canada in a responsible and sustainable way,” she continues.
To this end, the association developed the 2050 vision report, released in November 2021. The document cites five priorities.
The first goal is decarbonizing electricity production in Canada by 2035. This entails adopting a clean electricity standard with clear GHG emission limits, and consultations on such a standard are now underway.
The second goal on the ‘to-do’ list is modernizing electricity markets and regulatory structures in Canada. The aim here is to lay the groundwork for expanding and decarbonizing the electricity grid in a cost-efficient manner. Among other measures, CanREA recommends removing barriers facing renewables within the electricity system and encouraging innovation to allow renewables and other new technologies to provide services to the grid.
Thirdly, the association endorses building new solar, wind, and energy storage in Canada through competitive procurement procedures to acquire cost-effective new, decarbonized electricity production.
Rethinking electricity infrastructure investments and minimizing the cost of developing new distribution and transmission infrastructure is fourth on the list. CanREA encourages regional energy collaboration and infrastructure investment as well as more efficient use of existing infrastructure.
Lastly, the report recommends reducing GHG emissions in Canadian buildings, industry, and transportation by using decarbonized electricity, as well as deploying strategies to produce low-carbon-intensity green hydrogen from renewable energy.
While the report is ambitious in tone, CanREA believes its goals are entirely achievable. For one thing, most electricity in Canada is already produced by non-GHG emitting means. Electricity accounts for about 16 per cent of total energy use in Canada, but this needs to increase to 50 per cent by 2050.
In 2018, some 61 per cent of Canada’s total electricity generation was produced by water power, using waves, tides, or currents to generate electricity. Of the remainder, 15 per cent was generated by nuclear power, nine per cent by natural gas, eight per cent by coal, five per cent by wind, and one per cent by biomass/geothermal. Solar accounted for less than one per cent of electricity production in 2018.
Canada’s current generation system has its limitations, however. Green as it may be, new hydroelectric power can be expensive, labour-intensive and can involve years of exploration, research, and construction work.
Other clean energy sources present different challenges. Hydrogen, for example, has been touted as a possible breakthrough green power solution. For all its potential, hydrogen currently remains untested a “wild card,” according to the Canadian Climate Institute.
“At a time when we’re talking about doubling electricity generation and need to get started now… we need to focus on accelerating deployment of [what the Climate Institute terms] ‘safe bets.’ Those wild cards will not help us today,” says Giannetta. Will there be a role for them? I think, yes. There is a role for many different technology solutions, but we have to double down on wind and solar now because it’s proven. It’s the lowest cost option, it’s flexible and ready to go today,” she explains.
Wind power, in fact, has become the lowest-cost energy source for generating electricity in Canada. Wind turbines can be installed on land or in water where breezes turn the turbine blades to generate electricity. In a solar setup, photovoltaic cells absorb sunshine that is converted to electricity. Neither wind nor solar systems produce any greenhouse gas emissions after they are manufactured.
In addition to being inexpensive compared to other green alternatives, wind and solar systems are highly scalable. A single wind turbine or solar panel can be installed on a home or property to generate a small quantity of electricity. Large numbers of wind turbines or solar panels, meanwhile, can be arrayed in ‘farms’ to power neighbourhoods, factories or communities. Storage systems, in the form of batteries or other solutions, store electricity generated by renewable sources for future use.
As of December 31, 2021, Canada boasted 14,304 megawatts (MW) of wind energy capacity, an increase from 13,627 MW in 2020. This puts Canada ninth globally in wind capacity. Last year, 677 MW of new wind power was commissioned, a growth rate of around five per cent. Most wind energy growth occurred in Alberta, with additional expansion in Ontario, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan.
Solar energy capacity in Canada as of December 31 was 2,399 MW, an increase from 2020 when capacity was 2,111 MW. Some 288 MW worth of solar power was added in 2021, for a growth rate of 13.6 per cent. As with wind power, most solar energy expansions took place in Alberta, with some growth in Quebec, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, and Ontario.
CanREA predicts an additional 1,000 MW of solar and 2,000 MW of wind will be added in Canada this year. It views wind and solar as complementary and does not support one over the other.
Wind, solar, and energy storage “are very unique on their own accord, but have very unique synergies and are natural allies,” states Giannetta. “These technologies, when combined, provide a more comprehensive solution.
“Getting to net-zero is going to require an end to the development of new fossil fuel resources. It’s also going to require a dramatic reduction and virtual elimination of all greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel production and use,” Giannetta says.
The economic benefits arising from greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuel production need to be balanced against the economic costs associated with climate change, Giannetta says. This includes the increased prevalence of floods, droughts, wildfires, and scorching temperatures. She points to research by the International Energy Agency, a French-based association devoted to energy solutions, to back up her point.
“The International Energy Agency has been really clear. Failure to move away, fulsomely, from fossil fuel production will have devastating economic consequences,” she notes.
On the other hand, a move toward clean electricity will not only forestall ecological calamities, it will be a boon for jobs and growth, she continues.
“If you go into the weeds in the [Powering Canada’s Journey to Net-Zero: CanREA’s 2050 Vision] document, there is an $8 billion investment opportunity for Canada if we pursue our Vision targets. We’ve got 28,000 direct and indirect person-years of employment that we can quantify, every year in Canada, if we rise to the challenge we’ve outlined in the Vision,” Giannetta says.
CanREA believes Canada will need to see 1,600 MW of new solar energy and 3,800 MW of wind energy installed annually, on average, from now until 2050. If these benchmarks are reached, Canada’s wind and solar capacity will grow nearly tenfold.
CanREA recognizes that Canada is still a long way off from achieving these targets, but Giannetta is heartened by the fact that the United States, under President Joe Biden, has also announced plans to decarbonize domestic electricity production. Current energy policy in the U.S. favours the expansion of renewable energy.
Closer to home, the 2050 vision report has received “a very positive reception from decision-makers within the electricity sector,” as well as federal and provincial officials, says Giannetta.
The association was delighted this March when Hydro-Quebec announced plans to add 100 terawatt-hours of renewable energy capacity by 2050. This move will increase electricity generation in Quebec by over 50 per cent and wind energy is expected to play a significant role.
While such developments are encouraging, she again emphasizes the need for speedy action when it comes to expanding and decarbonizing electricity generation.
“What we’re talking about is a massive undertaking, and the sense of urgency is something I can’t stress enough. Despite that massive undertaking, our members in Canada and the energy industry are ready to take on the challenge,” she states.
“We can’t wait. We don’t need to pause and study. We know what the solutions are, and we need to move forward.”