The United States and Canada have a long history when it comes to electricity supply and demand. Canada provides power to U.S. communities across 35 transmission points, stretching across a north-south grid that ranges from the the Pacific coast to the Eastern Maritimes. Both countries benefit from this relationship: The U.S. is able to feed power-hungry areas like New York, and Canada benefits financially from its expansive wealth of hydraulic power and other sources.
A growing number of Canadian researchers and engineers are questioning the logic of this dominant north-south grid these days, as Canada begins to reevaluate how it can become more sustainable.
Last month, a group of 60 researchers published a report suggesting that realigning Canada's grid on an east-west axis would bolster the economic resilience of its grid as well as make Canada a more sustainable powerhouse. Acting on Climate Change: Solutions from Canada's Scholars takes an inquisitive view of the way Canada shapes its energy production and use. And from the authors' standpoint, redesigning where the power goes would not only allow those sustainable and power-rich provinces to spread the wealth, but it will also help provinces that are still digging themselves out of a carbon-based power dependency, like Alberta.
This is hardly a new idea. The Canadian Academy of Engineering has been working on this concept for some years, providing data on how Canada could not only transform its grid but its approach to the future as well.
"As Canada enters the 21st century, it remains blessed with an abundant array of energy resources. There will be opportunities for managing these big projects as an energy system which will go beyond the interest of individual companies acting alone, and require a new vision of Canada's energy future," say researchers at the Energy Pathways Taskforce, a project of the Canadian School of Engineering, which authored several reports on ways that Canada's energy sector can become more sustainable.
Part of that new vision includes enhancing electrical supply that links provinces like Quebec and British Columbia, which thrive on their hydro power, with Prince Edward Island, which has no power source.
"Canada at present has more electrical connections with the U.S. than it has among all the provinces (34 to the U.S. compared to 31 among provinces)," explain the authors of a 2012 report from the Canadian School of Engineering. They go on note that many of those north-south connectors "can transfer quantities equivalent to the output from major hydro or nuclear plants."
A pan-Canada grid wouldn't necessarily detract from the services provided to the U.S., say the authors, who point out that an interconnected grid between Canada's provinces and territories that incorporates hydroelectric generation, tidal power, wind and other sources would allow the country to develop and facilitate "the flow of other low-greenhouse gas renewable power to electricity markets."
Other benefits of the proposal, which incorporates 17 potential lines between the northeast tip of the country and Victoria/Vancouver at the southwest, include:
Threats to the plan include the "continued interest of U.S. utilities to work on the feasibility of their on continental grid." The report points out that a dominating weakness of the plan is the political will of stakeholders across Canada to invest in and agree to the plan. One of the reasons for this stumbling block is that under the Canadian Constitution, power generation is administered by the provinces, so consensus must be reached before a new grid is established. Another challenge is its geography: Areas like eastern British Columbia's formidable Rocky Mountains have at times presented obstacles to new energy and transportation corridors.
The CAE task force estimates that preliminary costs of the pan-Canada grid would be about $25 billion, and it would take a couple of decades to build. To do this, new hydroelectric and tidal generating systems would need to be constructed in various parts of the country, adding another $2.5 billion to the price tag.
But the 60 Canadian researchers that authored this most recent report on Canada's green energy options estimate that Canada could conceivably reach "100 percent reliance on low-carbon electricity by 2035" if it built an east-west smart grid. Combined with Canada's current push for low-carbon transportation, say the authors, this innovative approach could support a "transportation 'revolution."
"In the short term, we believe that Canada, in keeping with its historical position of aligning with U.S. targets, could adopt a 2025 target of a 26 to 28 percent reduction in GHG emissions relative to our 2005 levels."
The world will be watching, Canada.
Canada's renewable energy potential map: Dialogues on Sustainability: Acting on Climate Change, Solutions from Canadian Scholars
Images of Canada-US power grid and proposed east-west grid: Canadian Academy of Engineering: Winning as a Sustainable Superpower, Vol. II
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.