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Rob Shaw: Eby banks on electricity. Now we just have to find it

Many questions remain as the premier pins the energy future on electricity ahead of other options
B.C. Premier David Eby's ambitious energy plan is focusing on electricity to the exclusion of other sources | Chris Jongkind/Moment/Getty Images

Premier David Eby’s ambitious new push to fight climate change by electrifying the province – including major polluters like LNG terminals and mines – has left some wondering: Where’s all that new electrical power going to come from?

It sounds like a simple enough question, but trying to answer it will send you down a rabbit hole of eye-wateringly complex energy demand charts, regulatory filings, and competing opinions from BC Hydro, academics, advocacy groups and environmentalists.

Most can’t even agree whether Hydro is correctly predicting British Columbia’s future demand for electricity, at a time when the government is encouraging people to move from traditional vehicles to electric vehicles, as well as from gas heating to heat pumps.

The uncertainty was amplified last week when the NDP government approved the $3 billion Cedar LNG project in Kitimat, which proposes to use huge amounts of electricity to meet emissions targets, rather than burn natural gas.

The Eby administration also set out a new “energy action framework” with yet-unspecified emissions caps on the oil and gas sector that will require any new projects to tap into the electricity grid to become net-zero by 2030 in order to even be considered for provincial approval.

All this, amidst the spectre that one of B.C.’s largest polluters, the LNG Canada plant in Kitimat, is considering a second phase expansion that could blow the province’s climate targets unless BC Hydro builds new energy transmission lines to the north coast to offer the facility an enormous amount of clean power.

“We do need a lot more clean energy, and most of it could be clean fuels or clean hydrogen or a number of other energies,” said Mark Zacharias, executive director of Clean Energy Canada.

Nationally, the generally accepted wisdom is that we’ll require two to three times the electricity we currently generate to serve our future needs, he said.

And since 70 per cent of our energy currently comes from fossil fuels (natural gas, oil, transportation and heating), our society has to figure out a way to replace that 70 per cent with another energy source that is cleaner, said Zacharias.

Which brings us to the nuclear option.

Some provinces, like Ontario, are choosing nuclear power to meet their future energy demands. Small scale reactors have the endorsement and research support of the federal government, because they are less expensive, cheaper and safer than the big nuclear plants of old. Ottawa considers nuclear key to achieving its climate reduction goals.

“That longer-term discussion is what’s led the federal government to make their policy announcements and investment in nuclear, particularly the small modular nuclear reactors,” said Zacharias.

British Columbia has long prided itself on cleaner power, from its hydroelectric dams. Yet there are few remaining feasible locations for future dams. The most recent one, Site C in northeastern B.C., has faced billions in cost overruns and so much opposition from environmental groups that no government will want to repeat that process once Site C comes online in 2025.

B.C. currently has a law banning nuclear power.

Modelling done last year by Simon Fraser University’s School of Sustainable Energy Engineering suggested the province should rethink that ban, because nuclear energy could provide the kind of steady, reliable, low-carbon power that would backstop B.C.’s future investments in intermittent power sources like wind, solar and geothermal.

Small scale reactors, or even microreactors, could be used to power sectors like the mining industry or natural resource projects, suggested the SFU authors.

However, the safety concerns and radioactive waste bi-products could prove a political non-starter for environmentalists, many of whom are present within the NDP cabinet. And, economically, small nuclear reactors don’t currently provide the cheapest form of power, nor are they likely to have public buy-in or Indigenous consent.

So, the Eby government is keeping the idea off the table.

“Nuclear energy is currently not part of our energy portfolio in B.C. and government has no plans to amend the legislation,” Energy Minister Josie Osborne said in a statement.

It’s the right call, said Werner Antweiler, an expert in climate change economics and energy systems at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

“There’s a certain aversion in B.C. to dealing with nuclear,” he said. “There’s no history here and no compelling need.

“I don’t see them as being a realistic option here at this point,” he added.

Instead, the province is “well positioned to be a leader in clean energy and our government is committed to achieving our CleanBC Roadmap goals, using clean electricity in buildings, vehicles and industry, as well as promoting the use of other low carbon energies such as hydrogen,” said Osborne.

BC Hydro tried to spell out what that means over the next 20-years with its 2021 Integrated Resource Plan.

It basically boils down to the need for more energy efficiency programs, voluntary time-of-use pricing to encourage people to do things like charge their electric vehicles at non-peak times, and, eventually by 2037, some new clean and renewable energy projects, combined with upgrades to existing BC Hydro generating facilities, mixed with renegotiated electricity purchase agreements with independent power producers.

It sounds fine. But the plan is slightly out-of-date, doesn’t totally align with the new directions of the Eby government and didn’t factor in the electrification of new LNG projects like Cedar LNG.

“The question for Hydro is if they are adequately forecasting the future,” said Zacharias. “To be fair to Hydro, they are in a bit of a bind right now. They need to know if these large offtakers (LNG plants and new mines to harvest rare earth minerals) are going to be built.

“No one is sure what the future is going to look like.”

Still, Hydro’s plan is solid, argued Antweiler.

“I am confident in BC Hydro’s integrated resource plan,” he said. “I’ve studied it front to back and am confident they got the numbers right in their planning.

“Any notion that you need to rush to find new power solutions is absolutely premature.”

To combat all the uncertainty, the Eby government has ordered BC Hydro to speed up planning for energy projects, to try and better meet the needs of future natural resource projects as they are finalized, not eight to nine years after they come online and drain the power grid.

He’s also ordered an expedited review of building a power line to the north coast, to service LNG Canada and Cedar LNG.

Is that, combined with Site C and Hydro’s own internal planning, enough?

Clean Energy Canada still forecasts BC Hydro won’t be able to provide sufficient electricity to meet the government's policy objective of decarbonizing the economy, and it could fall short of meeting its climate targets as well.

Antweiler said it’s doable with better conservation, demand-side management, smart capacity and the Site C dam.

Politically, the honest answer is the Eby government doesn’t know for sure how it will feed the electricity demand it is now actively encouraging. It has an ambitious goal. Meeting it will not be easy.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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