By John Bacher
An obscure regulation will come into effect this July as a result of an initiative of the Conservative government of Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper. It prohibits the construction of any new coal burning electrical plant in Canada and will phase out those currently operating by the year 2061.
Harper’s go slow approach to coal burning electrical generation, which Ontario has already demonstrated (through its already accomplished shut down of coal-fired plants) is one of the low hanging fruit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, should be the focus of a national political debate.
While provinces have the power to follow Ontario’s lead and shut down coal burning plants, the federal government has the opportunity to offer incentives to do so.
With 77 per cent of our electricity already coming from renewable sources, Canada is well positioned to match Norway’s achievement of 100 percent renewable power, without the use of nuclear energy. Nuclear currently accounts for only 15 per cent of Canada’s electrical generation. Fossil fuels of all sources, including coal, account for only 23 per cent of our national electrical supply.
The potential federal role for shutting down fossil fuels as a source of electrical generation has been highlighted in “Sustainable Canada Dialogues.” This document was prepared by sixty researchers from 30 Canadian universities in order to influence debate in the upcoming federal election on the issue of climate change.
The “Sustainable Canada Dialogues” report concludes that one of the key steps that needs to take place to reduce carbon emissions are “ East-West intelligent grid connections.” These would “allow provinces producing electricity to sell electricity to their neighbours to take full advantage of Canada’s low carbon energy position.”
The concerned academics found that, “High voltage east-west electricity generation between existing provinces would allow provinces that produce hydro-electricity (British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec) to sell it to their neighbours. This infrastructure development could be supported by the federal government.”
One example cited in “Sustainable Canada Dialogues” is Saskatchewan. This province relies on especially dirty source (based on local high sulphur lignite) for about 54 percent of its electrical power needs. It is right next however, to Manitoba, which like Quebec, has a electrical generation system based on clean renewable hydro electricity.
There have been discussions about Saskatchewan importing clean power from Manitoba to facilitate a coal phase out. One of the steps that needs to be taken for this is having a 138K interconnection between the two provinces. Helping finance this measure could be an obvious investment for the federal government.
The new NDP government in Alberta is to be commended for its determination to phase out coal by 2030, about twenty years before the schedule of the defeated Conservative government. One of the ways the NDP official opposition in Ottawa could give a boost to its provincial counterpart, is by endorsing federal investment in improved high voltage transmission between British Columbia and Alberta. This was one of the key findings of road to reduced greenhouse gas emissions by researchers at the University of Calgary working on the “Sustainable Canada Dialogues” report.
While viewing east-west transmission lines as a serious obstacle to emissions reductions, the “Sustainable Canada Dialogues” authors do not see the need for such improvements to curb green house gas pollution in the Maritime provinces. They are coal burning and nuclear dwarfs next to the green giant of Quebec.
In the recent past a provincial government in New Brunswick seriously considered the sale of its entire electrical infrastructure to Hydro Quebec. This was essentially rejected for narrow minded provincial autarkist thinking. New Brunswick’s autarkist approach perpetuates its dirty nuclear-thermal mix of power. This includes a bizarre burning of tar sands from Venezuela. ( a fuel too dirty to be used in gasoline)
Ontario’s success in being a pioneer in a coal phase out for climate change purposes was based on a correct understanding of major impact to save the planet, coupled with minimum impact on human behaviour. This strategy needs to be emulated nationally, and combined with a phase out of nuclear power. Uranium needs to be kept in the ground, since its mining inevitably leads to harmful radiation and pollution.
In one federal election a heroic figure, Steffan Dion, was unfairly maligned over the complex debates over carbon taxes. Such taxes unlike a coal and nuclear phase out impose demanding sacrifices on a the majority of voters. Let us hope that in the upcoming election party leaders have the vision to advocate simple nation building by an intelligent national energy grid.
This is the contemporary version of nation building to the transcontinental railways of the Victorian era.
John Bacher is working on the Greenbelt Review for the Sierra Club of Canada and the Niagara-based citizens group, the Preservation of Agricultureral Lands Society.
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