Powering a nation part one: Where Canada’s electricity comes from

You wake up. Turn off your alarm. Unplug your phone and check your messages. Turn on the light. Flush the toilet. Turn on your hair dryer. As you go through your daily routine, you have dozens of interactions with electricity without thinking about it.

But where does that power come from? According to the Canadian Electricity Association (CEA), 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 natural resources such as natural gas.

According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN), the most important source of our electricity is moving water (hydro), which accounts for about 60 per cent of the supply. Natural resources like oil and natural gas are next in line at about 18 per cent, followed by nuclear, wind, biomass and solar.

Canada’s electricity system is one of the cleanest in the world, with 82 per cent of our power coming from sources that do not emit greenhouse gases. The federal government’s goal is to increase that to 90 per cent by 2030, which will come with challenges according to the CEA’s Vice President of Government Relations, Michael Powell.

“Our system is very clean from a global perspective,” said Powell. “But the ability for Canada to transition to entirely non-emitting sources is a more complicated question. Large-scale, on-demand, non-emitting generation sources tend to be regionally located, and that raises some complicated challenges.”

While some provinces, like Quebec and British Columbia, have an abundance of rivers needed for hydroelectricity, others like Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia don’t. They have relied mostly on natural gas and coal. As coal is being phased out, it is often being replaced with much cleaner natural gas. Across the country, natural gas is also used for back-up electricity generation.

Powell says the transition from coal is well underway and will dramatically reduce carbon emissions. And as Canada moves toward its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, it does not mean natural gas will be eliminated from the mix. He says the industry will rely on technologies such as carbon capture and storage as important tools to offset emissions. Canada’s pipeline companies are playing a significant role in this area, with many projects underway that will reduce their environmental footprint.

“Modern natural gas plants have a dramatically reduced emissions profile,” said Powell. “As we look forward at how you build out a system that remains reliable and remains affordable, for the foreseeable future natural gas will be part of that mix.”

As the sources of Canada’s electricity continue to evolve and change to meet the country’s climate change targets, the way that electricity is used is also expected to shift. In next week’s blog post, we’ll look at the movement toward electrification – what it means and how it will be accomplished.

Thank you to Michael Powell, Vice President of Government Relations with the Canadian Electricity Association for his contribution to this blog post.