Photo: Canada has no shortage of low-carbon energy

Solar photovoltaic and wind energy could each provide 150 terawatt-hours of electricity per year by 2050— half of Canada’s current electricity consumption. (Credit: franky242 via

By Tyler Bryant, Energy Policy Analyst

If anything limits Canada's transition to a low-carbon energy system, it will be integration, economics, and politics, not the lack of energy itself.

An Inventory of Low-Carbon Energy for Canada, the Trottier Energy Futures Project's second research report, shows that Canada will have no shortage of renewable fuels and electricity by mid-century. But our ability to hit an 80 per cent target for reducing our energy-related greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will depend on an integrated energy system that combines individual technologies to deliver affordable, reliable, sustainable energy services.

We're often told there are no substitutes for the high-quality energy that fossil fuels supply. At the same time, we're told fossil fuel reserves are depleting and leading to ever-higher prices. We're told renewables can't compete with the reliability and versatility of fossil fuels, wind farms would have to be massive, biofuels would reach some unimaginable scale, and solar power arrays would have to cover vast tracts of land, just to eat into our demand for fossil fuels.

So the Inventory research addressed two basic questions: Whether Canada will have enough low-carbon energy to meet its energy demand in 2050, and what the implications of a transition to low-carbon sources would be.

Any country's raw renewable energy potential is essentially a function of land area. With the second-largest land mass in the world, Canada is endowed with an enormous amount of renewable energy — so enormous that the raw numbers are almost meaningless in any practical energy scenario. In theory, enough solar energy lands on Canada to supply all our energy in any conceivable scenario. With our long coastlines, the theoretical potential of wind, wave, and tidal energy is practically limitless. Even with a finite annual stock of raw material, all our available wood cut, agricultural residues, and biomass waste would supply 70 per cent of the energy we currently consume in Canada, although only a fraction of that would be available as a sustainable energy feedstock.

So it's good to know that the availability of raw resources won't limit Canada's embrace of low-carbon energy futures.

The more interesting question is how much of that raw potential can be turned into actual, delivered energy. The answer depends on the cost of harnessing the energy, the challenge of integrating it into the existing system, and for bioenergy in particular, the sustainability of the source materials and the ecosystems that support it. These and other factors make a precise figure for Canada's low-carbon energy supplies a moving target.

The Inventory concluded that solar photovoltaic (PV) energy and wind could each provide 150 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity per year (540 petajoules, or PJ, from each source) by 2050. That's half of Canada's current electricity consumption. Hydroelectricity could supply more than 100 TWh, about 45 per cent more than current generation, and some of the estimates indicate no need for large, new dams or their environmental impacts. If bioenergy supplied another 3000 PJ of energy, that would represent a four-fold increase over our current use.

But it would take a concerted effort from industry and government, plus greater engagement from ratepayers and citizens, to make it happen. To hit the low-carbon target, production would have to increase 15 per cent per year for solar PV, seven per cent per year for wind, four per cent per year for biomass, and one per cent per year for hydro. In total, Canada could produce 6000 PJ of carbon-free energy — a sizeable amount, but still much less than our current consumption of 10,000 PJ. Left unfettered, energy consumption will continue to rise as our population increases and the economy grows.

All of which points to a challenge that underlies any low-carbon energy scenario: To achieve an 80 per cent GHG reduction, Canada will require an energy system in which fuels and electricity are both produced and consumed much more efficiently than they are now. This implies not only a transition in which our energy technologies are transformed, but also a fundamental shift in the underlying habits, behaviours, policies, and practices that shape our energy use. It'll take significant changes in the physical shape of our society — and in the decisions outside the energy system that determine our urban, transport, communications, manufacturing, shipping, and industrial systems — to hit the 80 per cent target.

The Trottier Energy Futures Project is dedicated to addressing these challenges and outlining the path forward to a low-carbon energy system.An Inventory of Low-Carbon Energy for Canada shows that the renewable energy resources will be available to us, but that's just the beginning of the story, not the end.

March 27, 2013

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1 Comment

Jun 25, 2013
3:10 PM

I completely agree with your statement that it is not Canada’s lack of access to renewable energy limiting its transition to a low-carbon energy system. However, attempting to move directly from fossil fuels to solar, wind, and biofuels by mid-century may be an impossible and unsustainable task. Statistics Canada reported in 2012 that 63.3% of Canada’s current electricity generation is produced from hydro power, 15.3% is produced from nuclear power, and 15.0% is produced from conventional steam. While hydro power generation is accepted as a sustainable source of electricity, nuclear power generation can be argued to be either sustainable or unsustainable. Transitioning from fossil fuels to nuclear power could contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions however this could also create negative environmental impacts in the future due to nuclear waste disposal. Nuclear power could be considered a temporary power alternative to reduce current greenhouse gas emissions until more sustainable options such as solar and wind can be implemented on a large scale. Whether or not nuclear power generation increases in Canada, it is not in our best interest to attempt to eliminate it entirely from the system. At the present time it is also not in our best interest to attempt to eliminate the use of fossil fuels for power generation. Canada is not expected to reach a peak oil extraction rate until the late 2020’s and it can therefore be considered an economical power generation option despite the social and environmental tradeoffs. A large portion of extracted oil is also exported which means that altering Canada’s use of fossil fuels will not only affect Canada, but also global economics and emissions. At some point in the future Canada will have to make the transition to the most sustainable energy sources available such as wind and solar however it may not be a sustainable choice to attempt to accelerate this transition. In every power generation alternative or transition the triple bottom line must be considered to evaluate environmental, social, and economical sustainability, not simply environmental impacts. This means that industry, governments, and Canadian citizens must all be involved in the process of a transition and as you have stated, it is not simply a problem of lacking access to renewable energy. It is a wicked problem in which every possible solution is going to have positive consequences, negative consequences, and trade-offs.

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