Water to rise as top export: economist

Canadian energy and utility regulators face massive disruptions in the coming decades
Canadian water could be one of the country’s biggest commodity export opportunities by 2030, according to Cornell University environmental economics professor Michael Moore | Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

It’s 2030, and you are headed to a public hearing on a proposed new pipeline project. Not an oil pipeline, but a freshwater pipeline that would move water from British Columbia to Southern California.

You jump in a self-driving electric car, which is comparatively cheap to drive, thanks to hydro power from the Site C dam that was completed six years earlier and now supplies power to B.C. and Alberta.

A speaker at the public hearing reminds the new water commission that, 15 years earlier, a decision was made to approve a new oil pipeline, which is now being decommissioned – natural gas and renewable energy having largely supplanted oil as the dominant fuel source.

These were among the Future Shock predictions made by energy experts last week at the Canadian Association of Members of Public Utility Tribunals (CAMPUT) annual conference in Vancouver.

Canadian energy and utility regulators are facing a range of new challenges, including First Nations rights and title issues, climate change policies and massive disruptions in energy sources and technology.

One of the more controversial speakers – Cornell University environmental economics professor Michael Moore – dismissed as “silly” the notion that any state or province can ever get to 100% renewable energy (if, by that, they mean wind and solar) and said that, where abundant hydro power is not available, energy and utility regulators might need to approve new nuclear power plants.

“You cannot make it to a decarbonized world unless you employ nuclear facilities,” Moore said.

Pierre-Olivier Pineau, chairman of energy-sector management at the HEC Montréal business school, disagreed.

“I really, truly believe that renewable technologies and energy efficiency and storage technologies will enable us to cover most of our needs,” he said. “I see neither coal nor nuclear playing a strong role in the next 20, 40 years.”

The year 2030 is the target set by governments for meeting climate action commitments – just one of the disruptions regulators like the National Energy Board and BC Utilities Commission will be forced to grapple with.

Canada targets a 30% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030, and 80% by 2050. Alberta has set 2030 as the target for a complete phase-out of coal power.

Meeting those targets will require an aggressive move away from fossil fuels to zero-emissions technology in transportation.

While it may sound ridiculously futuristic, David Layzell, director of Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research (CESAR), suggested a majority of North Americans could be using fleet-managed autonomous electric vehicles by 2030.

He cited a new RethinkX study that projects that fleet-managed self-driving electric vehicles will dominate American roads by 2030, resulting in stranded oil and pipeline assets throughout North America.

In 2030, Moore said, natural gas, not oil, will be the world’s dominant fuel source, coal will be history, carbon markets will have fully developed, nuclear power will become an important source of electricity, and water, not oil, will be Canada’s most valuable export.

“I think that if we look at the one good that we have in Canada that is truly renewable – and that is going to be worth more than gold, more than oil, more than natural gas – that’s water,” Moore said. “So I think that, by 2030, we will be engaged in active, productive, thoughtful decisions about how to integrate a water market through North America.”

Because of renewable energy sources’ problems with intermittency, storage and grid integration, Moore said governments will eventually realize that the dream of cities run exclusively on solar or wind power was “just silly.”

Wind is unpredictable, and while solar power is reliable, too much of it creates a problem for power grid managers because it creates a mismatch – known as the “duck curve” – in which daily power generation surges at a time when it is needed least and falls when it’s needed most.

“It’s bad policy-making,” Moore said, “because it’s not thinking about what the integrated impacts are going to look like.”

Thanks to hydro power, Vancouver, Montreal and Winnipeg enjoy power rates of about $0.08 to $0.10 per kilowatt hour (kWh) compared with $0.28 to $0.31 per  kWh in Boston and San Francisco, respectively.

And thanks to cheap coal power, Calgary and Regina also enjoy rates of $0.10 to $0.15 per kWh, though those prices will likely rise when Alberta and Saskatchewan phase out coal.

Pineau said it makes no sense for provincial governments and utility regulators to plan energy projects solely for domestic use. He argued for more regional integration.

He pointed to Labrador’s massively over-budget Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam project as a “disaster in the making” that could have been resolved with regional planning and integration. 

nbennett@biv.com

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