Blair King takes a detailed look at the Greens' climate action plan and finds good intentions, but no remotely realistic way to get there.
On May 16th Elizabeth May unveiled the Green Party’s Mission Possible, their 20-step “Green Climate Action Plan.” While I have to admit “Mission Possible” is a very cool name, the plan repeats what we saw with their Canadian “Green New Deal.” It is simply not ready for prime time.
When you start looking at the details, it becomes clear: the Green Party needs to assemble a policy team that understands energy issues, infrastructure development, and logistics – because this plan demonstrates a woeful lack of specific expertise on these topics and more.
Let’s start with the biggest challenge: modernizing the grid. This one is particularly important because many of their subsequent steps rely on easy access to copious amounts of low-carbon electricity.
9 – And modernize the grid
By 2030, rebuild and revamp the east-west electricity grid to ensure that renewable energy can be transmitted from one province to another.
While a necessary goal, if we are going to achieve our long-term climate ambitions, Canada’s vast and challenging geography has limited our ability to create a nationally integrated power grid. Even the most optimistic view has a new grid costing $25 billion and taking a couple decades to build. A more realistic appraisal puts the cost of a national backbone of 735 kV transmission lines at around $104 billion and taking 20 years to complete.
A reasonable observer would note that $104 billion, while expensive, is doable – but my biggest concern with “Mission Possible” is the time it allocates to achieve these goals. Put simply, building infrastructure takes time. Even wartime mobilizations can’t eliminate Canadian winters or the breeding/nesting seasons, so unless we decide to ignore every environmental law on the books, we can only clear and build over limited portions of the year.
One other thing is for certain: building this grid will require a massive, permanent transfer of land rights. As we know from watching the pipeline debates, linear developments affect every community they go through, and I can’t see affected First Nations voluntarily giving up rights to tens of thousands of hectares of land without consultation.
Given recent history, I can’t see major work starting until years after the projects are proposed and, as demonstrated by TransMountain, federal ownership does not mean a free ride through the courts. I have no doubt that any costs to build the transmission system will need to be supplemented with large sums to compensate individuals and First Nations.
As for the pace? The courts have made it abundantly clear: you can’t rush consultations.
After the national backbone has been built, we’ll still need to work on all the feeder lines that will have to go to every city, town, and hamlet. Building transmission lines in Canada can be intensely expensive. Consider that the Northwest Transmission Line in BC cost over $2 million a kilometer to build. As for the costs? If your single main line is $104 billion, what about the tens of thousands of kilometers of feeder lines?
Even taking into account existing infrastructure, we are talking stupendous sums. It is simply not possible that we could achieve this goal by 2030.
This leads to an obvious problem: if the electricity isn’t there, where are all the electric vehicles going to get their electricity?
10- Plug in to EVs
By 2030 ensure all new cars are electric. By 2040, replace all internal combustion engine vehicles with electric vehicles, working with car makers to develop EVs that can replace working vehicles for Canadians in rural areas. Build a cross-country electric vehicle charging system so that drivers can cruise from St. John’s, NL to Prince Rupert, B.C. – with seamless ease.
Many others have written about the challenges of decreasing the number of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles on our roads, so I won’t repeat their criticisms here. Instead, let’s consider the load forecasts.
As I previously calculated, to simply replace the gasoline burned in BC (and accounting for increased efficiency of electric vehicles over ICE vehicles) would require approximately 15,800 GWh of electricity (or about 3 Site C dam Equivalents [5,100 GWh]).
Want to replace all those diesel vehicles? That’s about the energy equivalent to 11,400 GWh (2.2 Site C Dams). These are not trivial numbers – and they represent British Columbia only.
In combination with other steps (discussed below) the increase in electricity demand will require us to essentially double our national electricity generating capacity. Renewables are great, but the scale of this problem seems not to have been noticed by the Greens’ policy. We are talking about absolutely massive increases in our electricity generation system with all the associated costs and time limitations built into those upgrades.
12- Complete a national building retrofit
Create millions of new, well-paying jobs in the trades by retrofitting every building in Canada – residential, commercial, and institutional – to be carbon neutral by 2030.
I live in a relatively efficient 25-year old house. Like most of my neighbours, my heat and hot water are natural gas and my house was not built to passive housing standards. To re-fit my house to become “carbon neutral” would require removing and replacing the heating and hot water systems (and a lot of insulation upgrades which I won’t go into in this post) and I am not alone.
According to the National Energy Board, 58% of BC households rely on natural gas for heating; 67% in Ontario, and in 79% in Alberta. In order to achieve step 12, we would need to retrofit all those houses by 2030. According to StatsCan, Ontario had 5,169,175 households in 2016. 67% of that number means around 3,500,000 houses need retrofitting – that’s about 350,000 per year by 2030. That is essentially 1,000 per day, every day, between now and 2030 – so it will certainly create jobs.
I would also note that any requirement to retrofit will require some sort of compensation to homeowners required to expend thousands of dollars to replace perfectly functional hot water heaters and furnaces. Sure, one might argue that government could simply refuse to provide compensation, but a program that alienates 67% of households in Ontario would never pass political muster. No sane government would try it; the only way it happens is if government pours billions of dollars into the program.
Since this blog likes to consider energy, let’s also consider what this means for load forecasts.
According to our natural gas supplier, the natural gas for household use represents about 64 Petajoules (PJ) of energy in British Columbia alone. Put another way, 64 PJ is equivalent to about 17,750 GWhr – or more than 3 Site C Dams’ worth of additional power in BC alone.
These numbers are starting to add up pretty fast, aren’t they? And we haven’t even considered the commercial or institutional retrofits.
13- Turn off the tap to oil imports
End all imports of foreign oil. As fossil fuel use declines, use only Canadian fossil fuels and allow investment in upgraders to turn Canadian solid bitumen into gas, diesel, propane and other products for the Canadian market, providing jobs in Alberta. By 2050, shift all Canadian bitumen from fuel to feedstock for the petrochemical industry.
A lot of people agree: it’s desirable that Canada be self-sufficient in oil. While a positive idea, it ignores geographic and infrastructure realities.
In 2018, Canada produced about 4.6 million barrels per day (MMb/d) of crude oil. The problem is that western Canada produced about 95% of that oil, and the vast majority of the consumption takes place in Eastern Canada.
In 2017, the Hibernia oil field generated about 220,800 barrels/day (b/d). The Irving refinery in Saint John consumes 320,000 b/d all on its own. Put simply, the entire Newfoundland and Labrador oil production is insufficient to supply that one refinery in the Maritimes – and so doesn’t come close to replacing oil imported to supply the Maritimes, Quebec, and Ontario.
The Green Party has spent the better part of the last two decades blocking the mass movement of oil from western Canada to western Canada. We simply cannot get the oil from where it is produced to where it is used absent a massive investment in infrastructure (like, say, an Energy East pipeline). Absent that investment we cannot end oil imports in eastern Canada.
As for the idea of developing a 4 MMb/d petrochemical industry in Alberta? That is simply magical thinking. Due to their volatile nature, petrochemicals are generally produced close to where they are consumed – so good luck finding foreign investors willing to cover the costs.
This would be another multibillion dollar government investment in fossil fuel infrastructure…you know, the type of subsidy the Green Party loudly supports every day.
14 – Switch to bio-diesel
Promote the development of local, small scale bio-diesel production, primarily relying on used vegetable fat from restaurants. Mandate the switch to bio-diesel for agricultural, fishing and forestry equipment.
This represents another case of the Greens identifying a technology that sounds good on paper, but has significant concerns when you look more deeply.
It ignores the challenges of scale. Specifically, how many restaurants do the Greens think exist in Saskatchewan to replace all the agricultural diesel?
Additionally, switching over to pure bio-diesel poses significant challenges for modern engines. Bio-diesel produces less energy per liter and has significant issues with filter plugging and engine compatibility when it represents more than about 20% of the blend.
I think I can stop here. I have looked at only five of the 20 steps and shown each one to be impossible, much less impracticable, in the timeframe provided. I haven’t even mentioned that step 7 – “Ban Fracking” would make it impossible to develop geothermal energy resources or that the “ban fracking” statement is inconsistent with most recent science (the Scientific Review of Hydraulic Fracturing) on the topic.
It’s clear that the Green Party either lacks the internal expertise to create reasonable policy, or it has chosen to ignore it. I say this because I am not providing particularly earth-shattering insight here.
If the Green Party wants to be taken seriously in October, it has to start imagining that its signature polices are going to be looked at more closely than they were in the past.
This “Mission Possible” document makes it clear they are not yet ready for such scrutiny.
Blair King is an environmental scientist who works out of Langley BC and blogs at the website A Chemist in Langley on the topic of evidence-based environmental decision-making.