Energy security and the road to net zero

Posted on Thursday, March 18, 2021

Author: Prof. Monica Gattinger

Director, ISSP
Chair, Positive Energy, uOttawa

Originally published by The Hill Times on March 10, 2021

The power outage in Texas is a devastating reminder of the importance of energy security. It’s a powerful cautionary tale of why decision-makers need to keep electricity reliability top of mind. 

This will be key on the road to net zero GHG emissions by 2050. Energy security is often overlooked in emissions reductions decision-making – most likely because in advanced economies like Canada’s, we take it for granted. That we do so is a testament to energy providers’ success delivering reliable and affordable fuels and power.

But challenges to energy security will be coming at us fast and furious. If decision-makers don’t attend to them proactively, it will compromise climate action, the economy and human health.

What is energy security? 

The International Energy Agency defines it as “ensuring the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price.” On pathways to net zero, the availability, sources and prices of energy will be in constant motion.

Take energy sources. The International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario considers what’s needed to meet the Paris climate targets. It sees fossil fuels supplying 56% of global primary energy demand in 2040 (down from 80% in 2019), with the remainder a combination of bioenergy, nuclear, and renewables. The Scenario sees electricity account for 31% of total final consumption in 2040, up from 19% in 2019. And the power sector would rely far less on fossil fuels in 2040 (24% of the generation mix, down from 72% in 2019) and far more on nuclear (19%), hydro (10%), bioenergy (11%) and other renewables like wind and solar (36%). 

Similar trends are expected to play out in Canada. Recent modelling by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices yields a number of different scenarios to meet the country’s net-zero aspirations. All see lower reliance on oil and gas, the rise of alternative energy sources like hydrogen and modern biofuels, and a growing role for electricity. 

Electrification is a key issue when it comes to energy availability and potential disruptions to availability. As the energy system’s reliance on electricity grows, so too does its vulnerability to power outages. 

The challenges here are multiple, and include climate change itself in the form of more frequent extreme weather events knocking power systems offline. The more we rely on electricity for transportation, heating and industry, the more devastating the economic and social impacts will be. This will be far more than the lights going out.

The ability to integrate intermittent sources of power like wind and solar into the grid will also shape availability. Having access to firm baseload power or largescale storage to supply power when intermittent sources cannot will underpin reliability. So will guarding against cybersecurity attacks, whether by hostile foreign powers, terrorists, ransom seekers or even disgruntled employees.

All of this depends in turn on the ability to finance and construct a mind-boggling amount of electricity infrastructure. Electrification in Canada means doubling or even tripling generation capacity – new renewables, nuclear, transmission lines, and more – at a time when community expectations for engagement and government requirements for impact assessment are growing. If supply doesn’t keep pace with demand, expect interruptions.

Or soaring prices, as in Texas. 

Which brings us to affordability. Energy prices are notoriously difficult to predict and are shaped by multiple factors. But one thing is sure: Canadians do not sit idle in the face of high prices. Given the central role of provincial governments in the electricity sector, people channel their anger straight to politicians. Just ask former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. 

Overlooking energy security can lead to calls to roll back climate commitments – even if price increases or supply disruptions are not directly attributable to climate action. Texas is a case in point, where the outage is calling into question further integration of renewables into the grid despite the fact that renewables were at most a contributing factor to the blackout.

None of the above is reason to weaken climate change action. Far from it. Rather, it underscores the importance of keeping energy security front and centre on the road to net zero. 

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