To grasp Canada’s electrification challenge, it’s necessary to understand two things: electrical grids and the need to move building design towards an “efficiency first” outlook.
Chris Ballard knows about electrical grids. He’s a former Ontario minister of the environment. Ballard describes the grid as three integrated components: generation, transmission and distribution.
Ontario’s electrical grid and many other provinces’ as well have become increasingly centralized under fewer owners, Ballard told the Daily Commercial News. That’s because the small municipal owners have not kept up with higher electrical demand and system maintenance needs.
“The bigger companies are doing a much better job. They are investing the tens of millions of dollars that smaller companies should have but didn’t.”
Meanwhile, Ballard says Ontario has become increasingly reliant on natural gas power plants that were originally conceived as “peaker plants” to supplement hydro and nuclear plants. That’s counterproductive to Canada’s commitment to the Paris Accord. In the absence of green-sourced power alternatives, calls to take gas-fired power plants offline by 2030 will only lead to blackouts and higher electricity bills, says the IESO, Ontario’s electricity system operator.
Therefore, matching restrained supply with increasing demand is also a matter of reducing overall consumption by changing behaviour. That includes making homes and buildings as efficient as possible so they require less energy in the first place.
As the current CEO of Passive House Canada Chris Ballard understands that as well.
“First you make the building efficient, then you electrify. If you have a highly efficient structure, you are not going to be using a lot of electricity to heat it. That keeps the cost down, whether it’s a high-energy efficiency retrofit or new building.”
However, simply switching every home and building over to electrification by installing higher amp service panels would throw the electrical grid into chaos trying to meet the surge of demand, Ballard says.
“When homes have 200 or 400 amp panels installed, the local distribution company is forced to upgrade its system to accommodate the maximum 400 amp.”
Despite reports of anti-electrification campaigns in the U.S. sponsored by natural gas interests, Ballard doesn’t expect similar guerrilla tactics in Canada.
“Canadian natural gas suppliers are changing their business models. They give assistance on energy conservation. Some are even moving into electrification.”
Although centralized power utilities have brought high levels of necessary investment, Ballard advocates placing solar arrays on homes and buildings so they can generate as much of their own power as possible.
Many agree and advocate storing the energy where it is generated.
However, cost is major factor. One Tesla Powerwall costs around $10,000, barely enough to run basic appliances during an outage. Medium or large buildings would need dozens of batteries, plus the infrastructure, installation and service contract to put them online.
Energy storage technology needs to be considered in terms of both efficiency and the environment.
Although alternative storage chemistries are being explored, lithium-ion batteries are the preferred storage technology today.
However, lithium mining at the scale required for all energy storage requirements is not sustainable.
As Passive House Canada chair Deborah Byrne, observes, “We’re changing from tearing up the ground for oil to tearing up the ground for lithium.”
Despite the challenges ahead, Ballard has a message for owners, designers and engineers planning today.
“By the time you implement, you’d better be planning for electrification. You need to address efficiency first. Next, think about how you’re going to place solar panels and what are you going to do to offset your electrical draw.”
He points out that major Canadian cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Hamilton are already going “above and beyond” current code requirements for building efficiency, including electrification. Hundreds of other Canadian municipal jurisdictions have declared a climate emergency.
“This is a global issue. If we don’t electrify and reduce GHG emissions, our economy will suffer. We are an export economy. Countries around the world are going to apply carbon taxes to imports from countries not pulling their weight.”
John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to email@example.com