Canada’s Electricity Supply
What fuels will power our nation today and tomorrow?
Electricity is produced when mechanical energy is harnessed and used to rotate a turbine. The mechanical energy to spin the turbine can come from a variety of sources, including falling water, wind, or steam from heat generated either by a nuclear reaction or by burning fossil fuels. How electricity is generated is heavily influenced by the resources available for producing mechanical energy. In Canada, traditional resources have included water, fossil fuels, and nuclear fission. Today, more renewable resources are being harnessed to produce electricity. Canada will need to make use of all available energy resources to continue to provide a sustainable supply of electricity going forward.
- Canada is a nation rich in energy resources. Today, the bulk of our electricity generation comes from hydropower. In Canada, 77 per cent of electricity generation is non-emitting of greenhouse gases. Electricity generation is heavily dependent on the resources available in various jurisdictions. Provinces such as British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador are rich in water resources, and rely heavily on hydropower for electricity generation. Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are endowed with coal and gas resources and rely primarily on the burning of fossil fuels for the bulk of their electricity generation.
- More recently, emerging renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, ocean wave, tidal and biomass are being harnessed to produce electricity. For example, Southern Ontario and parts of the Prairies have good wind resources and are developing wind installations for generating power; coastal areas like British Columbia are investigating the potential of wave power; and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are developing tidal energy projects in the Bay of Fundy. It is important to remember that many renewable energy resources are considered intermittent; that is, they are only available when the wind is blowing or sun is shining, and cannot necessarily be called upon to operate at all times. In addition, although new ways for producing electricity will continue to be developed, regions will remain largely dependent on the energy resources available to them.
- Canada’s electricity system has historically been characterized by large generation facilities located away from population centers. The electricity is then moved over long distances to cities and industrial centers using transmission wires. This structure was originally designed to exploit large hydro resources located in the northern parts of provinces, far away from population centers located near the Canada – U.S. border. Historically, a relatively small number of generation facilities have supplied the majority of Canada’s electricity needs, resulting in a transmission system that is made up of relatively few, extremely high capacity transmission lines that connect these generation plants to consumers.
- The addition of more renewable electricity resources to the electricity system means the structure of the transmission system will need to be adapted. Renewable generation is typically lower output and is more geographically disperse than traditional generation plants. This means more low capacity transmission lines will be needed to integrate renewable resources into the system. These additional lines will mean new challenges for the transmission industry. Increasing the number of transmission lines multiplies the complexity of operating the grid efficiently, effectively and reliably. The intermittency of renewable resources will bring additional challenges to operating a transmission system designed to manage traditional electricity fuels with stable outputs. And the construction of these additional lines will likely prove to be a significant cost for utilities and consumers alike. Finally, innovation in energy storage could play a significant role in paving the way forward for integrating these intermittent renewables into the electricity grid.