Wiggin: To further Canada’s net-zero goals, look to other countries


Thermal energy networks, the dominant form of space heating in much of Northern Europe, could be part of an affordable, decarbonized future.

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The following is offered in response to ‘Net-zero may be the most ill-conceived national project Canada has ever pursued,‘ published Aug. 21; and Steven Guilbeault’s net-zero plan is laughably impossible, published Aug. 17. 

We have a climate crisis, people around the world are suffering and Canada is wracked with floods and wildfires. This is not a time to say that net-zero is bad policy or “laughingly impossible,” as recent articles did.

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There is much we can do, including seriously considering technologies that are widely embraced by other countries but that are resisted or rejected by our NIH (not-invented here) or NIMBY attitudes.

With our abundant renewable resources, Canada has one of the best opportunities to move seriously toward net-zero. If only our policymakers and scientists/engineers could talk to each other, as they do in other countries.

If we pursue an “electrify everything” approach, then writer Adam Pankratz has a point. We could neither construct nor afford to build enough electricity-system capacity by 2050. But if an option is ridiculous, one should look at other proven ideas — such as ideas that have been the cornerstone of Northern European energy systems for decades. Wasting time criticizing bad ideas isn’t much help. We need workable solutions, even if a major transformation is required.

If everyone adopts electricity-based heating, the peak requirements could as much as quadruple. It is the peak demand, during the coldest winter days, that determines the installed generation and distribution system capital costs. For the electric utility, the peak load determines its investment and the amount of energy purchased determines its revenue. For example, if all of the buildings in Ontario were electrified, the increase in peak load would be about 85,000 MW (or 85 million kW); and at a cost of $10,000/kW, that could be as much as $850 billion. For a typical house with a peak load of about 20kW, the share of the cost would be about $200,000.

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This future utility cost is not mentioned by contractors, but someone will have to pay. It is not a realistic option. If this was the assumption, then it is no surprise that the writers found our current approach to net-zero bad policy and “laughingly impossible.”

Fortunately, there are options if we address the unnecessary energy waste in our society and make use of the abundant renewable energy around us.

We continue to build thermal electric generating stations and throw away the heat. The recent plan is to build 4,800 MW of nuclear generation at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, in the middle of nowhere, and throw away about 5,000 MW of heat. If built near Toronto, there would be enough heat for the whole city.

Industrial cities such as Hamilton have lots of heavy industry and throw away lots of usable heat into the harbour. Industrial and municipal waste is buried, taking up land, and its energy value is lost. We have the largest forest resources in the world and don’t make any significant use of them for producing heat or electricity for cities. Heat goes down the drain in sewers; it can captured and upgraded with efficient heat pumps.

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These are not fuzzy ideas. Locally, pulp and paper mill closures in Thurso, Cornwall and Portage du Fort have eliminated markets for more than three million tonnes a year of local forest and sawmill residues: trees and residues not suitable for lumber. About 120,000 tonnes a year would heat the currently renovated government district heating system in Ottawa. A drop in the bucket, but a start to help the environment and local economy, with lots left for expansion in other communities, making better forest management affordable.

What is missing to enable these improvements are thermal energy networks or district heating systems — the dominant form of space heating in Sweden, Finland and Denmark and much of northern Europe. These networks, just insulated pipes in the ground, harvest and distribute otherwise wasted resources to heat buildings.

These are just examples of proven possibilities. There is much that we can and must do. After 40 years of working in community energy systems and conducting joint research with other countries, I see thermal networks as that critical infrastructure for an affordable, decarbonized future. The authors of these articles should look around, and then they would not be so glum.

Michael Wiggin is director of the Boltzmann Institute and a member of the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers Energy Task Force.

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