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The Paris climate talks have come to an end, and a historic agreement has been reached. In Canada, environmentalists have breathed a deep sigh of relief as the federal and provincial governments have signalled their plans to collaborate on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, between all the talk about putting a price on carbon, increasing energy efficiency, and building renewable energy capacity, some crucial pieces of the climate change mitigation puzzle have been largely overlooked — electrification and power storage. It is in these related areas that the provinces and Ottawa must show real leadership if Canada is going to succeed in ‘decarbonizing’ the economy.

It is one thing to green the existing electrical grid, it is quite another to facilitate the electrification of those sectors which have traditionally been dominated by fossil fuel use. Governments have overwhelmingly focused on the former, but it is just as crucial (if not more so) to find ways to electrify the machinery that has previously run on oil, gasoline and natural gas. This means greatly expanding electrical generation and storage capacity and introducing rules, regulations and incentives to change the way individuals and businesses carry out everyday tasks, particularly within the industrial, agricultural and transport sectors.

There is no doubt electrification is an enormous challenge, but how much of a gargantuan task must it have seemed in the late 19th Century to bring electricity to Canada’s largest cities at a time when kerosene and whale oil were the dominant fuels?

The norm for the last century has been to use diesel to power our tractors and agricultural vehicles, natural gas (or even oil) to heat our homes, gasoline to power our cars, and any mix of these fossil fuels to run our industrial machinery, construction tools and freight transport. If we want to have any hope of decarbonizing our economy Canada needs to make the shift towards electrification in all of these areas.

Let me demonstrate the absolutely crucial nature of this problem with the following thought exercise: If I told you Canada could completely green the grid overnight – that as of tomorrow only ‘carbon free’ sources of energy (hydro, solar, wind, geothermal, tidal and nuclear) will be used to generate Canada’s electricity, by what percentage would you think the nation’s GHG emissions would drop? It may surprise Canadians to learn that the answer is a measly 12 percent.  In other words, even if we completely eliminate all coal and gas-fired power plants, Canada would still have to find a way to eliminate the vast majority (88 percent) of its GHG emissions.

For many years electrification of this sort simply was not feasible due either to the inability and high cost of storing sufficient quantities of energy effectively in batteries, or the practical dilemmas involved in connecting mobile objects to an electrical current. There is no doubt these challenges persist, yet today significant inroads have been made in power storage technologies. For instance, there is Tesla’s new ‘power wall’ – essentially a large battery powerful enough to energize the typical North American home; or consider the ‘neighbourhood batteries’ that are being used to power entire communities in the UK. While domestic power agencies like Toronto Hydro have begun testing these types of large-scale electrical storage units, there is so much more that must be done at the policy level to facilitate, legislate, fund, and promote electrification and new forms of power storage across the country.The current plans for dealing with that remaining 88 percent focus almost exclusively on improving efficiency (though things like retrofits or new building codes) or putting a price on carbon. These are certainly worthy endeavours, but ultimately these measures will fail on their own because they do not address the reality that energy demand is growing and is forecast to continue growing over the coming decades (both on domestic and global terms). The only clear way to confront the reality of growing energy use while simultaneously reducing emissions is to electrify those sectors and aspects of our daily life that currently rely on fossil fuels.

The transport sector would be a good place to start. The technology exists to make buses, passenger trains and even freight trucks run on electricity, but there is still much in the way of research and development and regulation required to make this goal a reality. The previous federal government claimed climate leadership in September 2014 when it introduced regulations within the transport sector calling on vehicle manufacturers to make more efficient motors. Real leadership, however, would have looked more like the legislation passed at the same time in California, which focused on boosting the electric vehicles market.

There is no doubt electrification is an enormous challenge, but how much of a gargantuan task must it have seemed in the late 19th Century to bring electricity to Canada’s largest cities at a time when kerosene and whale oil were the dominant fuels? Genuine political leadership on climate change must include investment in research, development and innovation in electrification and new forms of power storage, not just in the areas of efficiency, pricing carbon and renewable energy. The latter are important, but we need all the tools in our climate change mitigation toolbox. 

Ryan M. Katz-Rosene is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa.

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