Public Policy Forum image

OTTAWA – On July 19, Ottawa-based think tank Public Policy Forum released “Project of the Century: A Blueprint for Growing Canada’s Clean Electricity Supply – and Fast.” This 43 page report is the most comprehensive discussion of Canada’s “energy transition,” as envisioned by the Liberal federal government, Pipeline Online has come across. It focuses on more than doubling the electrical grid by 2050, but doing so without growth in fossil fuel power generation.

On July 26, Edward Greenspon, CEO of Public Policy Forum, spoke to Pipeline Online about the report. He is listed as one of the authors, after Janet Annesley, David Campbell and Arash Golsha. Greenspon personally worked in Saskatchewan as a young man, starting his journalism career with the Lloydminster Times, and later worked with the Regina LeaderPost.

 

Edward Greenspon. Public Policy Forum

 

Pipeline Online: After reading the entire report, it struck me that this is it – this is the game plan the federal government is working on for its plans for an energy transition. Is this really the plan? And how closely do you think the federal government will follow it?

Edward Greenspon: Well, I don’t really know what the plan is, because I’m not inside the federal government. I appreciate that you think it should be the plan. And I think that it does lay out the sensible course, for governments and industry, to follow in pursuing an energy transition.

I would rather have, you know, let’s say 10 megawatts that really get out of there, than 20 megawatts and theoretically get out there, in terms of power that’s not clean, moving power from the emitting categories to clean category, which is, of course, just one of the two challenges we have, the other challenge being to more than double capacity. So, I think, obviously I agree with you that this is meant to be a blueprint. It’s called a blueprint. And you know, I hope governments and other players will see as a blueprint.

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Pipeline Online: I’m not saying that I agree if this. In fact, there’s a lot portions I don’t agree with, however, talking to Minister Wilkinson a month ago, I think he agrees with you. Because a lot of this is word for word, what came out of his speech in Regina. …

Question number two here, you pointedly bring forward the realities of slow regulatory approval, as well as interprovincial rivalry, that makes big projects difficult, if not impossible, in this country, including Energy East and Northern Gateway. Yet here, we’re talking about the largest infrastructure project collectively in our history, way larger than a CPR or the St. Lawrence Seaway. How do we change this slow walk regulatory approval?

Greenspon: Bottom line is, you do not get to the very important goals of the energy transition if you don’t hurry, if you don’t move into what we’re calling, ‘Hurry up offense.’ It just doesn’t add up. It doesn’t sync. It doesn’t happen. And so, if you’re serious about promoting a new transition, if you’re serious about the risks of climate change poses, and I am serious about those risks, then, the pace at which we’re going is not an adequate pace. I mean, it’s clearly not an adequate pace. And the paper talks about that in place. I think we say something like the pace has to be picked up by sixfold. Otherwise, we don’t get to the destination.

A hurry up offense is needed for regulatory approval, says Greenspon.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Heywood Yu

 

Pipeline Online: So, it took something like 90 years to build the current electrical grid that we have. But now we’re talking about more than doubling it and 26-odd years, how is that even possible, given how long it takes to build anything these days? And I use that example here, as a pipeliner, they built the Trans Mountain Pipeline, the original, in 16 months using 1950s technology. Here, we have enormous machines with enormously more capable equipment and stuff. And that is a retirement project for one of my best friends. He’s been on it for several years.

Greenspon: I think that’s a great illustration. In fact, I might employ at some point or another. That’s a great illustration. And, the answer the question who don’t, right? How do we, you know, I’m trying to frame or how you phrase the question, which was?

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Pipeline Online: How do we double this grid in more than 26 years?

Greenspon: In the 26, 27 years that we have. Well, you don’t double it playing the game the way we’ve been playing it. And the rules of the game were created for a world in which you didn’t have a climate emergency. So energy transitions that have preceded us historically, whether it’s water to steam, or steam to electricity, and oil, those were those moved at the pace of innovators and market adoption. Here, you have the added element of there’s climate change hanging over us and intruding into our lives more apparently, day after day.

So, you know, the clock is ticking. That’s how we get to hurry up offense, the clock is ticking. We don’t control the clock, nature controls the clock now. And so you don’t, you don’t do what you have to do. You must change the way we play this game.

Pipeline Online: So the report’s conclusion is that the federal tax dollars are going to have to pay for much of this. But the numbers spoken of are comparable to the size of our entire GDP. How are we going to do that? Do we have to go to Scandinavian levels of taxation, or worse? And how do we do that without scaring away every dollar out of this country?

Greenspon: Well, I mean, I guess the good news is every country faces the same challenge. So you know, that’s the good news. The other good news, maybe there’s a couple of pieces of good news here to talk about. The other piece of good news is because the energy system is cleaner than most countries will start with. And, of course, we have to point out importantly, that provinces are not all the same. From up high, they could look all the same, but they’re not all the same.

Nonetheless, we have a cleaner grid, which might give us, as we continue to move towards the goals that we’re trying to move towards, including the elimination of coal, which is, you know, almost completely out of two of the four provinces had coal in recent years. In Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia, still have to achieve that. But it should give us some forms of competitive disadvantage, if we do that. So, you know, that’s a piece of good news.

And another piece of good news, potentially, is that if we can get from here to there, which requires going through a valley. But if we can’t get from here to there, we actually might have a better system that’s more efficient, doesn’t have to be built to peak in the same way.

You made the point before the provinces need to respect each other. You talked about Energy East and Northern Gateway, as well, this isn’t the provincial thing, but the Quebec government has had problems getting power to flow through Maine. And jurisdictions are going to have to work with each other in different ways. Meanwhile, national governments have to recognize that provinces have the ultimate authority here.

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Pipeline Online: On any given day and Alberta, which has, as you said, mostly transitioned to natural gas from coal, their last coal plant will shut down very shortly. But on any given day, when the wind doesn’t blow, Alberta’s power generation is up to 90.8 per cent natural gas, a bit of coal and Saskatchewan, it’s up to 84 per cent. How are we supposed to turn that around non-emitting by 2035?

Greenspon: Well, I don’t think that anybody really thinks anymore, that it’s going happen by 2035. I think when we see the Clean Electricity Regulations, which none of us have seen yet, but I think they’ll have a number of allowances and of end-of-life for gas plants, other forms of allowances that, you know, bring us to this kind of near-zero, not necessarily net-zero, concept.

So, I don’t think anybody believes those provinces can. We should look at Alberta. I think it’s important because of the stress test. To stress test anything, you got to look at the best day, and on their worst day.

And on their best days, there’s a lot renewables on the system, that’s a system that’s very market responsive. And it’s changing. On the worst days, which, in Alberta happens to be the coldest days, it has a problem that policy has to recognize. And, that will involve a lot of abatement of natural gas.

In Saskatchewan, you know, there is an attempt, a move; it’s still a toe in the water, to SMRs (small modular reactors). I don’t think anybody knows for sure how quickly SMRs will make a material difference and how quickly they can be built. But that is the policy and government of Saskatchewan, how it wants to move towards non-emitting. I imagine they’ll also have gas that’s abated. And these are all parts of the solution.

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So, I think that interim targets are important. But interim targets are not important if they’re not steeped in the reality of the place. So I think we need stretch targets, I think we need to push people because we have a serious problem. But if you push them in a way that the elastic snaps, rather than, stretches, then, you know, then you haven’t got forward. Where that point is of maximum elasticity, it’s very hard to say, you know, from the outside.

Federal Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson, in Regina, on June 28. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

Pipeline Online: I think that snapping point could cause the breakup of the country. But carry carrying forward on that, on June 28, the Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson was in Regina to talk about the just transition, and he spoke about doubling the grid, as I mentioned before, including a lot of wind and solar. But the previous morning, Alberta’s wind production dropped to less than 1/1000 of its nameplate capacity, doing three megawatts out of 3,618. How we do your plan here, for this Project of the Century, if wind and solar continually flatline?

Greenspon: Well, you need a diversified portfolio. You need peakers, at the moment. Maybe, when we get better storage down the road, when we have better demand management down the road, and perhaps that will be less critical. But right now, it obviously is critical. So, I think the main point, I’d say, is that the system has to work on the worst days. And one of the points that we make over and over in the paper is that you cannot get to clean without paying attention to affordability, and reliability. You won’t have the buy in that you need to get there. So, I agree.

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Pipeline Online: I’d love to get more into that and maybe in a future. But last week, reports came out that for 416,000 years ago, the northwest portion of Greenland, near Thule, which is currently covered in nearly a mile of ice, was ice free. And yet CO2 levels were 1/3 lower than what they are today. They were 280 parts per million. Do you leave any allowance for the possibility that maybe the science of climate change is not indeed settled? What if we go through this entire exercise, and are proven wrong?

The pin indicates the location of Camp Century, on one of the most northernmost pieces of land on the planet. And apparently it was tundra, not ice, 416,000 years ago, when CO2 levels where 1/3 less than what they are now. Google Earth

 

Greenspon: Well, first of all, if we find that out in 416,000 years, it’s not going to be on my shoulders. So no, I don’t give any allowance for that the science of climate change is wrong. Not because I can predict the future in any kind of absolute terms, but I think we have to operate on the best information that we have when we’re making a decision. And the best information we have tells us that climate change is very real and quite threatening.

So we need to do what we need to do. If we’re proven, let’s say, in 4000 years, or even 400 years, to have been overeager, then we’ll have been overeager. Hopefully, we’ll have built a better system regardless, because some of these things, habitats have not been things less prone to the machinations of 20-plus countries is a benefit. So, no, we proceed at the Public Policy Forum as if we had the belief that climate change is real, and that climate change is damaging, and the perceived manifestations therefore. And so, at that point, you have to ask yourself the question, what is the realistic and effective way to get to net-zero? And not what is the preferred way, or the theoretical way, but you know, what is really pragmatic? And what will happen? And that’s how will that happen, and that’s our view.

 

Editor’s note: Pipeline Online has requested permission from the Public Policy Forum to publish the entire Project of the Century report, in serial form. That permission has not yet been granted, despite the Public Policy Forum’s webpage copyright notice stating, “The Public Policy Forum encourages interested parties to use, in whole or in part, its publications, data, images and other content to further dialogue on public policy in Canada. We require that the PPF is properly cited and acknowledged. In all instances, the PPF would like to be notified of the use of its publications and data.”

Update Aug. 8, 2023, 10:30 a.m. Since Pipeline Online made the above request, Public Policy Forum has updated its copyright notice. It now states, “Copyright – The Public Policy Forum retains copyright of our publications. For permission to publish a report excerpt, please contact us at: ppforum@ppforum.ca

 

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Jonathan Wilkinson’s full Just Transition speech, verbatim