Whenever the subject of energy production in Canada comes up, most people immediately think about oil and gas (especially in Alberta). However, Canada’s natural resources go far beyond fossil fuels. Our vast country is also home to 24% of the world’s boreal forest, and 20% of the world’s freshwater resources.
Many of our major cities also receive significant amounts of sunlight and wind, both of which are becoming increasingly important as global concerns about climate change drive governments everywhere to embrace renewable energy sources.
Concerns about the economy can put some Canadians on the defensive about renewables. What many don’t realize is just how much renewable energy is already being used in Canada, and how that existing infrastructure can provide our country with a competitive advantage in the future. Below, we’ll take a closer look at the current state of renewable energy in Canada and explore the implications for its use down the road.
Types of Renewable Power Generated in Canada
How much renewable energy does Canada use? The answer might surprise you. OECD countries on average only get 10.2% of their energy from renewable sources, but renewables account for 17.3% of Canadian energy.
Here’s a quick breakdown of where most of that energy comes from:
Hydroelectric power is by far the most common source of renewable energy in Canada. According to Natural Resources Canada, our country is the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the entire world, and it accounts for more than 60% of the electricity we generate.
Hydroelectric power is expected to be one of the primary ways in which we as a country move away from non-renewable sources of energy such as coal, oil, and gas. Some projections have us using as much as 295% more hydro by the year 2050 in order to provide the needed amount of electricity to people while satisfying our climate targets.
However, hydroelectric power isn’t without its own challenges. While it’s still cleaner than coal and fossil fuels, concerns have been raised in recent years about the amount of methane produced and released into the atmosphere by hydro reservoirs. Additional challenges include the flooding of otherwise usable agricultural land that often occurs when building hydro infrastructure, its potential to introduce toxins such as methylmercury into nearby ecosystems, and the debilitating effects that hydro reservoirs often have on hunting and fishing in indigenous communities.
For these reasons, many experts now suggest that wind and solar power could represent better ways to produce energy from renewable sources.
It might be surprising to some, but Canada only gets a relatively small percentage of its energy from wind — about 5.8%. Early concerns about the viability of wind energy (such as the loud noise some turbines can produce) may have prevented Canadians from embracing the technology years ago.
However, wind turbines are getting quieter and many experts believe other factors make this technology a far more attractive source of energy today.
For one thing, wind energy subsidies have the potential to provide much-needed income to farmers, who can receive several thousand dollars per wind energy lease from developers.
Alberta also used to have an initiative called the Renewable Electricity Plan, which was intended to help make 30% of Alberta’s energy renewable by 2030, and which involved securing capacity for wind power at low prices via competitive auctions. That plan no longer exists, but during its lifespan, it provided ample evidence that wind power works well for the province.
The REP was able to hold three such auctions before it was discontinued — and the results have convinced many Albertans that the technology is as economically viable as it is environmentally responsible. Power generated from the resulting contracts is estimated to cost less than 4.0 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is less than half of what Ontario ended up paying in a deal from 2016. As a result, the Canadian Wind Energy Association says they still see a lot of interest from members in Alberta, and that they expect wind power production in the province to continue.
Solar power is frequently mentioned during conversations about renewables, but it currently produces even less of Canada’s renewable energy than wind. In fact, solar photovoltaic power accounts for only 0.6% of renewable energy produced in Canada, and the vast majority of it comes from Ontario.
That’s not to say that investment in solar power isn’t on the rise elsewhere. In fact, recent developments in Alberta have set the stage for nearly 700 MW-worth of solar energy projects to be built by 2030, which is roughly three times the amount previously estimated by the Alberta Electric System Operator.
Meanwhile, homeowners who don’t want to wait for the government to move on solar energy can retrofit their houses with personal solar photovoltaic systems that supply their own power needs. Some even choose to sell the excess power produced by these systems, which can help them pay off the initial costs of purchasing and installing them.
Our Renewable Energy Targets
The Paris Agreement
The reality is that we can’t wait for the federal or provincial governments to accept renewables for us. At our current rate, we won’t hit our Paris climate targets for 2050 until — wait for it — the year 2961. Clearly, something has to change.
Of course, it seems reasonable to assume that the transition towards renewable energy on a wide scale will pick up speed over time, but that shift may have to start with individuals. If more home and business owners start using solar battery systems to take their properties off their cities’ electrical grids, it may incentivize the government to get in on the action and finally start moving away from fossil fuels in a meaningful way. Likewise, farmers who continue leasing out land for wind turbines are sending a clear message to our leaders that there’s a market for such technology, and that they can take advantage of it by encouraging more investment in the sector.
What’s Next for Renewable Energy?
Canada has the land, wealth, and natural resources to become a global leader in renewable energy production. What we still need is a national push to embrace the technology, which means educating each other about its benefits.
The most important part of that task will be showing everyday people how renewable energy can put money in their pockets, especially as technology keeps improving. From more efficient solar batteries that provide greater savings to government-funded grant programs for improving wind power infrastructure, there are plenty of ways for home and business owners alike to benefit from the transition. Personal solar power systems have already been hugely important to the net-zero energy emission houses we build at Effect Home Builders, and have recently made it possible for us to take our office in Edmonton off the electrical grid entirely. With luck, projects like that will form the blueprint for renewable energy development across the country on every scale.