PUBLISHED MAY 6, 2021 | The Globe and Mail
Heather Chalmers is the president and chief executive officer of GE Canada
New emissions reduction targets are an important example of Canada’s climate leadership, but governments will need to leverage existing energy assets and empower committed partners to continue making substantial progress combatting climate change in the near term. In the long term, Canada needs a portfolio of innovative technology solutions that takes into consideration its energy diversity to accelerate decarbonization and secure a path to a lower carbon-emitting future.
Getting Canada, and the rest of the world, to net zero will require myriad technological solutions, consistent policy and regulatory frameworks, and partnership between governments, the private sector and non-governmental stakeholders. One framework worth highlighting is the federal government’s Hydrogen Strategy for Canada, which takes into consideration the country’s energy diversity. The plan, released last December, envisions a role for blue hydrogen (produced from fossil fuels such as natural gas, with carbon produced being captured for permanent sequestration) in hydrocarbon-rich provinces; green hydrogen in provinces with abundant renewables; and pink hydrogen from nuclear generation.
While innovation can drive adoption of newer fuels such as hydrogen, it can also help revitalize existing energy technologies where Canada has long-standing expertise, such as nuclear energy. The future of nuclear energy will be small and modular – as outlined in Canada’s Small Modular Reactor (SMR) Action Plan.
In provinces where coal provides substantial electricity, SMRs can replace coal-fired generation with zero-carbon, reliable, baseload electricity. Recently, the premiers of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick signed a joint memorandum of understanding to collaborate on SMRs, a promising sign of how hydrocarbon-rich provinces can work alongside provinces with deep experience in nuclear energy.
Canada can become a global leader in SMRs – a worldwide market the federal government estimates can be worth $150-billion annually by 2040 – but it will require decision-makers to prioritize safety, reliability and affordability to deploy reactors on time and on budget. Done right, SMR commercialization can also enable Canadian companies across the nuclear supply chain – from uranium producers to parts manufacturers – to access these global markets.
To tie diverse technologies together, governments and stakeholders will need to consider an often-overlooked but nevertheless integral component of the energy system: the grid. Physical upgrades (to increase efficiency) and digital solutions (to increase overall capacity and resilience) will be critical to accelerating deployment of renewables across the country as well as ensuring reliable and secure electricity for Canadians.
Moving forward, the power grid’s importance will only grow as electricity demand increases from new and versatile uses of power such as electric vehicles, smart buildings and energy storage. Digital infrastructure is just as important to the grid’s effectiveness as physical assets. Software can predict potential failures and reliability issues and avoid them by pro-actively managing the more complex demands of a modern energy system. Digital modernization will also strengthen the grid’s security in the face of disruptive events such as cyberattacks.
While the energy transition will bring opportunities that Canada can capitalize on, it will also present challenges to affected communities and will require new skills for the work force of the future. It is incumbent on all sectors – private, public and academic – to share a responsibility to close the skills gap and ensure the Canadian work force is prepared for the future and that communities affected by the energy transition can thrive moving forward.
What might this look like in Canada’s diverse and regionally varied energy sector? The deployment of carbon capture technology at scale can decarbonize heavy industry and dramatically reduce emissions from conventional power plants while sustaining jobs and generating economic growth for Canadians.
In the future, instead of transporting solely fossil fuels, pipelines will likely carry hydrogen to factories and carbon dioxide away from emitting sources to be stored permanently in the ground. If Canada can demonstrate these technologies at home, it can then export these solutions abroad. Continuing Canada’s global leadership in this space will require a co-ordinated approach across governments and R&D funding to accelerate capabilities.
The energy transition is under way around the world and Canada is already preparing itself for the changes to come. By thinking strategically and creatively, Canada can harness its innovative spirit, diversity of natural resources and human capital to decarbonize the future and ensure a just transition for affected communities.
Canada can continue to be a global climate leader and energy superpower amid a lower carbon-emitting future. But it will take all of us – governments, energy producers, original equipment manufacturers, utilities, research institutions, Indigenous communities and other non-governmental stakeholders – to work together to make this vision a reality.