COMMENTARY: Stephen MacMackin

Reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 is an ambitious but important goal; one supported by businesses and residents across Canada. However, in Atlantic Canada, the path to get there must be more realistic, fair and affordable than it appears today.

In June 2022, the Atlantica Centre for Energy released the first discussion paper in its Atlantic Canada’s Electricity Future – Discussion Series, which demonstrates the changes in electricity supply across the region until 2050. The discussion paper helps visualize publicly available data through the Canada Energy Regulator and illustrates the implications of federal regulations on the future supply of electricity in Atlantic Canada.

Through this process, the Centre identified several warning signs that the best path to net-zero may not be smooth for Atlantic Canadians. As an organization that proactively engages in energy issues, the Centre believes it is important to ask some hard questions about our clean energy transition before we invest much further.

What’s the plan?

Federal regulations are changing how utilities can generate electricity and how Canadians will consume it. For utilities in the Maritimes, this regulatory shift means stopping coal-fired electricity generation by 2030 and (likely) all fossil fuel-generated electricity by 2035. With no currently available non-emitting baseload power alternative, this will be a very difficult task.

At the same time, the demand for electricity will likely increase across the region, especially in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, as more residents must move away from oil to heat their homes, and many more vehicles will need electricity.

Replacing nine coal-fired plants in the region while meeting growing demand will require significant infrastructure, money and time. It’s not possible to just shut down baseload generating electricity plants and replace them with wind and solar power with currently available energy storage technology (i.e., batteries).

Yet, with the first 2030 deadline less than eight years away, there has been next to no public discussion about a long-term strategy that provides Atlantic Canadians with the cleanest and most cost-effective way to net-zero emissions while maintaining an affordable and secure electricity supply.

Why are the poorest provinces footing the largest bills when they’re leading the way?

The reality is Atlantica Canada is already leading the way in reducing emissions. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have both already reduced their total emissions by 36 and 37 per cent below 2005 levels, respectively. The national average is just nine per cent. Still, both provinces must undergo the same regulatory burdens as provinces which have yet to make any significant emission reduction to date, and at an extreme cost.

Of the total cost for the entire country to get off coal, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick will pay for 80 per cent ($1.221 billion and $561 million, respectively). If there were an alternative, cleaner and affordable option to help with variable and severe winter baseload power requirements, it can be assumed the utilities would have already done it.

Most other regions in Canada have extensive natural gas pipelines to provide relatively clean, affordable alternatives for heating homes and powering industry; this is not the case across much of Atlantic Canada. But, even if it is possible to transition coal-fired plants to natural gas electricity generation, this too may no longer be allowed after 2034 once the federal Clean Electricity Standard is in place.

What reasonable alternatives are available?

Should Atlantic Canada see greater electricity transition costs because there isn’t a widespread natural gas network? Should the Maritime provinces be required to meet the same clean-electricity targets without access to hydroelectricity for dependable baseload generation as Quebec, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Newfoundland and Labrador enjoy? The reality is that wind-generated electricity can help provide affordable electricity generation for the Maritimes, but it cannot provide enough reliable capacity utilities need for planning, especially during peak demand in cold winter months.

Currently, there are no easy solutions available to replace this baseload power. It doesn’t make sense for utilities to invest in natural gas infrastructure to generate electricity lost from coal, if it can only be a short-term solution. Is it reasonable to rush the phase-out of coal-generated electricity or other fossil fuels when better solutions might be just around the corner? For example, advanced Small Modular Reactors may be ready in New Brunswick shortly after 2030, tidal power could be on the horizon, and the industry is making big strides in innovating around hydrogen.

What is the most cost-effective path forward to a reliable, greener electricity grid in Atlantic Canada?

If there were no hard targets for phasing-out coal or implementing the Clean Electricity Standard, for example, what would our path to net-zero look like? Would it be a path that relies on commercial innovation supported by agile public policy to find the most cost-effective, efficient solutions?

Atlantic Canadians deserve answers to these questions and others. It is time for the federal and provincial governments to initiate a cooperative strategy built on a fair policy framework that is more realistic and achievable for the Atlantic provinces.

Stephen MacMackinStephen MacMackin is Chair of the Atlantica Centre for Energy.

The Centre is Atlantic Canada’s proactive voice for energy. It provides a unique meeting ground for industry, government, the education and research sectors, and the community at large to foster partnerships and proactively engage in energy-related issues. The Centre’s membership represents the largest employers, energy producers, distributors, and consumers in the region.

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Media contact:

Media representatives can follow up on this media release by emailing Michelle Robichaud.

Michelle Robichaud
Atlantica Centre for Energy
(506) 636-1110