There is no shortage of short-term issues for the media to cover. But none of the short-term issues will matter very much if we don’t get a handle on the longer-term issues of energy and climate change. And there is some news on that front that will be good for Canada.
Canada’s emissions are only 1.6 per cent of global emissions. So why does it matter what Canada does?
It matters because on a per capita basis, our emissions are currently among the world’s highest, and two times China. And it matters because we can indeed achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. By doing so we can gain the economic benefits and satisfaction of being a global leader.
Getting to net-zero will require many small changes by all of us and a few big changes by cooperation between industry and federal and provincial governments.
Let’s look at our four big-ticket opportunities. And let’s look at consumers first because producers can’t change what they make until we consumers change what we buy.
1. Twenty-five per cent of Canada’s emissions come from using oil to power our vehicles and mobile equipment
Battery-electric vehicles and equipment use 73 per cent less energy simply because most of the energy used by internal combustion engines is lost as heat. We already have the electricity needed to charge these devices. In most cases they will be charged at home base every night when electricity demand and rates are lower.
But batteries are too big and too heavy for heavy-duty trucks, mobile equipment, rail locomotives, and aircraft, so most of those devices will be powered by hydrogen. Zero-emission (green) hydrogen is made by splitting water (H2O) into hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O2) and storing the hydrogen in tanks for subsequent use. That is done by electrolysis of water. Since wind and solar are counter-seasonal (wind produces best in winter and solar produces best in summer), a well-designed “hybrid” wind-solar plant can be a consistent year-round source of electricity for hydrogen plants, without costly storage. The hydrogen itself provides the energy storage needed to level the short-term intermittency of wind and solar power. A national network of these hydrogen plants at strategic locations along main truck, rail, and air corridors will also minimize the need to increase electricity transmission capacity.
2. Thirteen per cent of Canada’s emissions come from burning natural gas and propane to heat residential and commercial buildings
European research has shown that energy-efficient building designs resulting from better provincial building codes can reduce heat losses from buildings by up to 90 per cent. Let’s use a more modest 70 per cent and rely on modern cold-climate heat pumps to further reduce energy requirements by an additional 33 per cent as compared to a combustion furnace. Those heat pumps are now being installed right here in Huntsville with good success.
3. Eleven per cent of Canada’s emissions come from heavy industry
Co-generation of electricity and heat can cut energy consumption in half for heavy industry and eliminate their emissions. Currently, industrial plants making steel, chemicals, fertilizers, and cement use large amounts of heat from burning coal or gas, but they waste the potential to produce electricity from that heat. Conversely, our thermal plants use energy from coal, gas, or uranium to make steam to drive a turbine that turns a generator. But there is still a large amount of heat left in the steam as it leaves the turbine. In today’s electricity plants, that heat is wasted.
The good news is that the emerging fleet of SMRs (small modular nuclear reactors) and EFW (energy from waste) plants can co-generate clean electricity and clean heat at the same time. The world’s first commercial SMRs will be operational in China and at Ontario Power Generation’s Darlington site in 2028. SMRs will be even safer than our current very-safe big nuclear plants. SMRs produce much smaller amounts of nuclear waste than current reactors and can reduce existing waste by using it as new fuel. Small reactors can be factory produced at much lower cost. Small reactors are more-easily deployed to industrial sites where the surplus heat can be used. EFW technology is widely used in Europe and is finally emerging here.
4. Twenty-six per cent and the largest amount of Canada’s emissions come from producing oil and gas
How can we eliminate emissions from the remaining oil production for our own use and for export? Most of that 26 per cent comes from burning large amounts of natural gas to make steam that is injected into the ground to melt the bitumen (thick oil) so it can be pumped to the surface. Small nuclear reactors can make clean electricity to replace Alberta’s coal-burning electricity plants, and at the same time replace the gas burners that currently make heat for oil extraction. That would eliminate the stigma of high emissions that has plagued Canada’s oil industry since the 1970s. Alberta’s oil industry is already working with SMR developers to do just that. Cleaning up our oil production will make Canada’s oil more acceptable to the 185 countries that have no oil reserves, for as long as they need oil.
Alberta’s oil industry has all the expertise and resources needed to lead the transition into the rapidly emerging global hydrogen industry. By shifting a portion of their annual $28 billion investment (a cumulative $784 billion by 2050 if that investment continues) from the oil and gas business to the emerging hydrogen network described in point one above, they can gain all the benefits of being an early adopter. Savings from buying natural gas, and revenue from the sale of electricity and hydrogen, will easily offset the investment in SMRs and hydrogen plants. It’s the best opportunity they will ever have.
The transition to clean energy must be gradual in order to avoid an energy crisis on top of a climate crisis, so we will need to deploy CCUS (carbon capture and use or storage) technologies to offset the small remaining uses of oil and gas. There are many CCUS developments already underway in Canada.
Can we afford to make all these big changes? We can’t afford not to. Every vehicle on the planet will normally be replaced twice between now and 2050. Building heating systems wear out and are normally replaced every 25 to 30 years. Industries routinely budget to replace or modernize their equipment every 25 to 30 years. The incremental cost of replacing old tech with new tech is significant but affordable. And it is much cheaper than the growing cost of climate change.
Hugh Holland is a retired engineering and manufacturing executive now living in Huntsville, Ontario.
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