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The Electrification Conundrum – Transitioning to Net-Zero in Canada’s Jolted Energy Landscape

The electrification conundrum: transitioning to net-zero in Canada’s jolted energy landscape


Canada is on the cusp of a major societal transformation, electrifying its transportation networks to drive towards a more sustainable future. Despite this positive shift, there are challenges to overcome. The reliance on fossil fuels within the current provincial power systems hampers the effectiveness of transitioning public transport to electric, hindering efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While the adoption of zero emissions vehicles (ZEVs) is a step in the right direction, the key lies in updating electricity generation methods and transitioning to cleaner, more reliable grids.


Tackling historical grid issues

Electricity grids are the backbone of modern life, powering every facet of our daily routines. As sustainability takes center stage in national discussions, the carbon footprint of these grids is a crucial aspect. Understanding the carbon intensity of power production across Canada’s provinces is vital, highlighting the disparities that could either propel or impede environmental initiatives.


As per the Provincial and Territorial Energy Profiles by the Canadian Energy Regulator, the oil and gas sector in Canada emerged as the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions, releasing 179.8 MT CO2e in 2020. Transportation followed closely, emitting 159.2 MT CO2e, with industries and manufacturing at 94.4 MT, and buildings at 87.8 MT. [1]


The below figure [2] provides a visual representation of the variations in carbon intensity associated with electricity production across Canadian provinces as of 2021. Carbon intensity is the measure of how clean the electricity is. It refers to how many grams of carbon dioxide (C02) are released to produce a kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity.


Understanding these differences is crucial for tailoring strategies that address provincial capabilities and needs in the journey towards a greener future.


Source: Government of Canada, Environment and Climate Change

Transitioning towards greener grids necessitates a multifaceted approach, leveraging both technological innovation and regulatory frameworks to usher in an era of sustainable electricity generation tailored to each province’s unique energy landscape.


Diverse gridscape

Canada’s provincial grids exhibit diverse energy strategies, each echoing their unique energy dependence stories. British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador and Yukon typically generate over 80 per cent of their electricity from hydroelectricity

As of 2020, Canada ranked fourth globally in hydropower capacity.

Impacts of an unstable grid

The repercussions extend beyond the environmental considerations into the economic domain. Insufficient grid infrastructure poses risks of project delays and increased costs for electrification endeavors. The tension is palpable as transit agencies strive to introduce ZEVs amidst concerns about the grid’s ability to sustainably power this transition.


CUTRIC’s recent report to the Town of Cochrane advised against transitioning to electric transit due to lack of local infrastructure and the carbon intensity of the existing grid infrastructure in Alberta. However, with new developments in the planning and modernization of Alberta’s grid, The Town of Cochrane and CUTRIC are working on a revised transit decarbonization strategy. This study highlights the need for meticulous planning to assess costs and greenhouse gas reductions associated with battery electrification in regions like Alberta, where the power grid is coal and natural gas-dependent.


In another study conducted for Codiac Transpo, similar results were found. Despite Codiac Transpo’s efforts to diversify its energy sources, coal continues to play a substantial role in the province’s energy landscape. This reliance on coal raises concerns that the emission reductions from transitioning to electric buses may not meet expectations. The electricity fueling these buses would still be partly generated from coal-fired power plants, limiting the anticipated environmental benefits. Similarly, the production of green hydrogen for FCEBs relies on electrolyzers powered by New Brunswick’s electricity grid, resulting in emissions higher than initially projected.


The composition of the electrical grid challenges the idea that immediate electrification is the optimal decarbonization approach for provinces relying heavily on fossil fuels for electricity production.


Balancing supply and demand

Current electricity grids face strain, impacting productivity as we progress towards an electrified future not only in transportation but also in meeting the escalating energy.


The move towards electric public transportation is underway, with provinces setting ambitious targets to phase out internal combustion engines. However, transitioning fleets to electric power poses a significant demand surge, surpassing current grid capabilities and emphasizing the urgency for infrastructure enhancements.


Strategies for advancing grid evolution

The journey toward transition raises critical questions that necessitate practical solutions aligned with environmental stewardship. Here, we consider some strategies to enhance Canada’s grids, steering them away from fossil fuel dependency towards a dynamic and sustainable future.


Investing in infrastructure

Investments in electrical infrastructure play a vital role in ensuring the sustainability of Canada’s energy sector. Notably, initiatives like the CleanBC Plan in British Columbia have paved the way by prioritizing renewable energy ventures and modernizing the grid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions [3] . Similarly, BC Hydro’s substantial $36 billion commitment [4] to local and regional infrastructure projects, as outlined in their Power Pathway report, marks a significant stride towards a cleaner energy future and climate action in the province.


Further east, Québec’s Hydro-Québec stakes its claim as a leader in hydroelectricity [5], undertaking expansive projects to enhance its grid’s capacity and efficiency.


These endeavors highlight a growing recognition of the need for updated, sustainable infrastructure to support the transition to electric-powered societies.


Prioritizing clean energy generation

The urgency to shift towards renewable energy sources is paramount. Wind, solar, and hydropower have the potential to redefine Canada’s energy landscape, providing the clean energy foundation necessary for a ZEV-driven future. Strategically deploying and integrating these sources must be done with precision, considering regional energy potentials.


At the forefront of clean energy generation, several notable projects across Canada and North America stand as a testament to prioritizing a sustainable transition. One such example is the Site C dam in British Columbia, an ambitious project set to contribute significantly to Canada’s hydroelectric capacity, promising to provide 5,100 GWh of electricity per year and increase BC Hydro’s current supply by 8 per cent. [6]


In Ontario, the refurbishment of the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station underscores a commitment to nuclear power as a low-carbon energy source, aiming to extend the facility’s life and boost its capacity to meet future demands [7]. Beyond Canada’s borders, the United States’ Block Island Wind Farm, the first offshore wind farm in the U.S., heralds a future where wind power plays a pivotal role in the North American energy mix. [8] These initiatives reflect a strategic pivot towards leveraging renewable resources, such as water, wind, and nuclear fusion, to fortify the grid against the burgeoning demands of an electrified future while concurrently addressing the imperatives of climate change mitigation.


Storage innovations

Energy storage technologies like batteries and innovative solutions such as compressed air energy storage offer flexibility, enabling the grid to store excess energy from renewables and meet peak demands. This decouples consumption from production, reducing emissions.


A critical component of stabilizing and optimizing Canada’s evolving energy grid lies in the advancement and implementation of energy storage solutions. Projects such as Ontario’s Oneida Battery Energy Storage System underscore the province’s commitment to sustainable energy, with the capacity to provide immediate electrical power to the grid, enhancing reliability during peak demand periods. [9] Similarly, Tesla’s deployment of its Megapacks at WindCharger storage systems in Alberta represents a significant step towards mitigating the intermittency of renewable energy sources by storing excess energy and deploying it as needed. [10] In the broader North American context, California’s Gateway Energy Storage, one of the world’s largest lithium-ion battery storage projects, showcases the extensive potential of energy storage in supporting grid stability and promoting the use of renewable energy. [11]


These examples highlight a growing trend towards investing in energy storage as a means to ensure a resilient, sustainable, and flexible energy infrastructure capable of meeting the demands of a progressively electrified society.


Digital grids and advanced technologies

A new era of digitalization, marked by smart grids and real-time energy management, promises enhanced efficiency and reliability. Digital grids merge power and information, facilitating a balance of supply and demand crucial for managing a diverse, renewable energy mix.


In the pursuit of refining grid efficiency and reliability, numerous Canadian and North American initiatives have been at the forefront of integrating digital grids and smart technologies. Ontario takes a prominent stance with its Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), enhancing energy conservation and reducing costs for consumers by allowing them to monitor and manage electricity usage in real time. [12]


In the broader North American landscape, New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) initiative is a pioneering model, focusing on building a comprehensive digital grid system to promote energy efficiency, greater use of renewable energy, and wider deployment of “distributed” energy resources such as microgrids, rooftop solar, and energy storage. [13]


Policy Advocacy

Establishing comprehensive policy frameworks is crucial to creating an environment conducive to grid modernization. Incentivizing clean energy investments, streamlining

regulations, and harmonizing provincial policies can unite the industry toward a sustainable vision.


Central to accelerating the transition toward electrified and sustainable energy systems is the crucial role of policy frameworks. Recently, Canada has taken significant strides with the introduction of its Strengthened Climate Plan, which sets ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, partly through bolstering the country’s electricity infrastructure to support clean energy. [14]


In the western region, Alberta has enacted The Electricity Statutes (Modernizing Alberta’s Electricity Grid) Amendment Act. This act introduces crucial provisions for unlimited self-supply and export, granting significant industrial operations the necessary flexibility and choice to optimize electricity expenses and uphold competitiveness within the province. Moreover, the new regulations offer improved prospects for commercial enterprises to produce their own electricity, giving them the option to profit from selling surplus energy back to the grid. [15]


Likewise, the European Union’s Green Deal is another landmark policy, aiming to make Europe climate-neutral by 2050. This comprehensive strategy includes a smart and secure electricity system integrated across the continent to facilitate the large-scale deployment of renewable energy sources. [16]


These policies underscore a collective acknowledgment of the importance of strong governmental support in promoting clean energy transitions, reflecting an authoritative commitment to environmental sustainability and energy resilience on a global scale.



Canada is making strides in electrifying its transit system and enhancing resilience in its grids, marking a significant national transformation. This complex journey mirrors the global challenge of aligning energy transition with existing grid structures. Canada’s pursuit of a sustainable, green future resonates internationally, showcasing its determination to reshape its energy landscape step by step.


CUTRIC’s Power Providers and Utilities Transit Decarbonization Committees

The Power Providers and Utilities Committee (PPU) is dedicated to fostering a cohesive national discussion. It explores the opportunities, challenges, and solutions linked to the expanding influence of utilities in Canada concerning transportation electrification.


Topics discussed include electric vehicle charging infrastructure for high-powered and low-powered transit systems, alongside hydrogen fuel cell electric transit systems.


The working group discusses cutting-edge technology advancements concerning electric and fuel cell buses, encompassing integrated energy storage systems.


Additionally, they evaluate utility business models suitable for specific jurisdictions or conditions to facilitate the growth of utility businesses in this sector.

The working group aims to formulate a set of recommendations that garner unanimous support from designated voting representatives of CUTRIC member utility organizations and allied entities operating within the electricity market.


Take a look at our upcoming PPU committees here.

The Electrification Conundrum – Transitioning to Net-Zero in Canada’s Jolted Energy Landscape
Members committees

PPU Committee #2 2024: Operational Load Management

The Power Providers & Utilities Transit Decarbonization Committee for Transit Electrification is trying to establish a systematic national dialogue reviewing

The Electrification Conundrum – Transitioning to Net-Zero in Canada’s Jolted Energy Landscape
Members committees

PPU Committee #1 2024: Transit Vehicle & Infrastructure Deployment Plans

The Power Providers & Utilities Transit Decarbonization Committee for Transit Electrification is trying to establish a systematic national dialogue reviewing


Utility strategy report

In 2021, CUTRIC released a report “Electrical Utility Strategies for Transportation Electrification.”


The report provides a comprehensive market scan of electrification of transportation strategies launched by Canadian electrical utilities. It also provides a review of case studies and best practices across North America related to electrification strategies, including legislation and regulation that promote utility involvement in the electrification of transit fleets.



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