Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

B.C. emission reduction targets ‘based on a fantasy,’ say energy experts

As British Columbia looks to decarbonize, electricity demand is expected to soar, and experts warn of an energy crunch
meikle wind farm, B.C.
The 184.6 megawatt (MW) Meikle Wind power project located 33 kilometres north of Tumbler Ridge is B.C.'s largest. According to a recent report, B.C. would need to build hundreds of such wind turbines, thousands of solar panels and ramp up biofuel production to meet its decarbonization plans.

British Columbia's plan to meet its emission reductions targets under the 2015 Paris Agreement is on a path to fail, according to an analysis from several energy experts.

The two-part report, produced by several experts at the University of British Columbia's Clean Energy Research Centre (CERC) last month using public data, found that the province must make drastic changes to how it consumes and produces energy if hopes to hit its 2030 and mid-century climate goals.

"The province's CleanBC plan is based on a fantasy," said Roland Clift, one of the report's authors. "They really lean very heavily on electrification, without asking, 'where is the electricity going to come from?'"

Clift, a UBC adjunct professor at the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and past member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, points to an often repeated misconception that the province has an abundant hydroelectric power supply. 

According to calculations by Clift and CERC director Xiaotao Bi, only 16.7 per cent of the B.C.'s current energy needs are met by hydroelectricity. Another 70 per cent — including 40 per cent gasoline and other petroleum products and 30 per cent natural gas — come from fossil fuels. 

"I for the life of me cannot understand why B.C. keeps putting it about that the province has surplus renewable electricity. It doesn't," said Clift. "All the low carbon electricity is already committed."

"That means you've got to find other energy sources, which are many times the current electricity supply." 

'WE'LL MISS THAT WINDOW AGAIN'

The B.C. government's CleanBC roadmap aims to reduce emissions 40 per cent below 2007 levels by 2030. By then, the government says all new buildings and 90 per cent of all light-duty vehicles will produce zero emissions. The province says it will become net-zero by mid-century, absorbing as much carbon emission as it produces. 

Net-zero by 2050 would ostensibly prevent global average temperatures from rising above 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, the threshold scientist say would lead to irreversible damage to the Earth's climate system.

The idea is to keep the economy humming along while transitioning toward renewable energy sources. The B.C. government's 2022 budget released Feb. 22 earmarked another $1.2 billion over three years to CleanBC and its 2030 emissions roadmap. 

That money is expected to pay for everything from the removal of provincial sales tax (PST) on used zero-emission vehicles to subsidies for heat pumps. It will also be used to develop a new emissions cap on natural gas utilities and launch a Local Government Climate Action program to replace another climate fund the province axed last year. 

But according to Clift and Bi, the latest CleanBC update fails to address how much energy a decarbonizing economy will really need and whether renewable energy, including hydroelectricity, can keep up.

"When you talk to people, they always say, 'We just needed to electrify our transportation.' But our analysis clearly shows that is not the case," said Bi. 

The researchers calculated a 20 per cent shortfall in the amount of electricity the province will require by 2030. In even the most generous emission reduction scenarios, they found B.C. fails to meet its goals. 

According to a 2019 climate inventory, the latest available data, B.C.'s greenhouse gas emissions continued on an upward trajectory.

"It's because we acted too late, too slow. That is really sad. We need to plan in advance," said Bi. "We need to act now. Otherwise, we'll miss the window again."

CONTINGENCY PLANS NEED ACTION NOW, SAYS REPORT

Spokespeople for both BC Hydro and the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation denied the province's climate targets were on a course to fail.

They pointed to the 2021 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) BC Hydro filed with the BC Utilities Commission on Dec. 21, 2021, which projects electricity demand two decades into the future.

The ministry spokesperson said the BC Hydro plan has contingencies if the decarbonization of B.C. leads to an accelerated demand for electricity. They include buying market energy from outside B.C., upgrading BC Hydro facilities and building new infrastructure to harness energy from wind, solar and biofuels.

"BC Hydro does not expect to need new supply until about 2030, and current forecasts show 1.4 per cent annual load growth from now until 2040," added BC Hydro spokesperson Simi Heer in an email.

But by then, Clift and Bi say it will be too late: they estimate the province will face a 60 petajoule shortfall in renewable energy by 2030 — equivalent to the current annual energy requirements of more than 1.6 million households. By 2050, when the province aims to reach carbon neutrality, it will face a 160-petajoule shortfall or the current annual energy demand of just under 4.5 million B.C. homes. 

BC Hydro has significant energy resources coming online before then. When fully completed in 2025, the $16-billion Site C dam in northeast B.C. is projected to produce 18.4 petajoules per year. The controversial mega-project is nearly a decade in the making. Even if BC Hydro could find a suitable river to replicate such a large hydroelectric project, it would be extremely challenging if not impossible to finish by 2030, says Clift. 

Instead, the energy experts say B.C. needs to concentrate a scattershot of renewable energy options into a concerted plan. That includes stemming the flow of wood pellets overseas and redirecting them to produce biofuels at home.

"Many people say that we do not need bioenergy; we can continue to export our wood pellets to Europe, to Asia," said Bi, who researches biomass clean energy systems at UBC's Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. 

"But we cannot get to our 2030 target without fully deploying our renewable energy sources in B.C."

Still, despite promises from industry, the researchers expect biofuels won't be able to fill more than 20 per cent of B.C.'s supply. 

That's where building out a massive network of wind and solar farms across the province comes in. It would take about 700 wind turbines or 30 square kilometres of solar panels under B.C. conditions to produce the same energy output as Site C, calculate the researchers. 

The energy created from those farms could then pump water into existing reservoirs, treating them as "batteries" of potential energy, stated both Clift and BC Hydro's Heer.

"They store water and allow us to ramp up and ramp down (electricity) production almost instantaneously," added Heer. "This means that we can add power sources like solar and wind to the provincial system because we have back up from our hydroelectric facilities for when the sun isn't shining, or the wind isn't blowing."

While the construction lead time to build wind turbines and solar farms is much shorter than a mega-dam, Clift says the province needs to start building now to have enough electricity generation come online by 2030. 

Karen Tam Wu, a climate and energy expert who wasn't part of the report but has served on the B.C. government's Climate Solutions Council, agrees. 

"Those renewable energy providers and clean tech suppliers need to start planning now," said the former B.C. regional director for the Pembina Institute. "We can't just throw up a bunch of wind turbines overnight." 

Or as Clift put it: "The crunch is actually here… It's like climate change — by the time it's obvious it's too late."

USING LESS ENERGY 'OVERLOOKED OR UNDERPLAYED'

One of the quickest ways to avoid an energy crisis is to stop using so much energy. 

BC Hydro's push to get British Columbians to swap existing heating systems for heat pumps is a good step, says Clift, as it reduces the amount of energy required to heat and cool a home.

Next on the list should be a major program to retrofit existing buildings, so they are more energy-efficient, notes the report. What's missing, says Clift, is the labour to carry out such a program. 

One study last year found at the current pace, it will take Canada 142 years to retrofit all low-rise residential buildings and 71 years to retrofit commercial spaces.   

"In Nova Scotia, they started a program to make jobs in the construction sector look more attractive. One of the slogans is 'we can't all work in IT.' B.C. doesn't seem to have got on to this," he said.

Tam Wu says the report underlines the need for the province to move towards "holistic energy planning," where big players like FortisBC and BC Hydro aren't presenting competing visions of the province's energy future. 

There's a big push to hit B.C.'s 2030 targets and a "messy in the middle" net-zero plan by 2050, says Tam Wu — along the way, she says, energy efficiency is often "overlooked or underplayed." 

"It's broad brush strokes right now," Tam Wu said. "What the researchers have pointed out is there need to be significant changes." 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story noted the CERC researchers reported a projected 60 petajoule shortfall in energy by 2030. The shortfall, in fact, is a 60 petajoule gap in "renewable energy" as B.C. has access to sufficient fossil fuels.