B.C.’s race to a post-carbon economy will change everything

It’s 2030, just 12 years from now. Your gas-fired furnace is gone, probably your gas stove, too. The City of Vancouver already has placed extreme carbon standards on builders to discourage gas installations in new buildings. Others will follow. Electric baseboard heaters? Forget about it. All new homes and many older homes will have heat pumps instead, systems currently used in about five per cent of B.C. homes. It’s a nifty technology that can extract heat from the air outside — even when it’s cold — and it reduces carbon emissions by 98 per cent compared to gas.

Industrial processes fuelled by cheap natural gas have switched to electricity, especially natural gas extraction and LNG processing, which are now fuelled mainly by natural gas itself. Only collectors will still have gas-powered cars and trucks, like your weird neighbour with a mullet and a 69 Firebird. Whatever, who wants to drive for half an hour just to find a gas station anyway?

About 99 per cent of all vehicles sold new, from cars to semis, will be electric by 2032 if we have any chance of reaching our greenhouse gas goals, according to Clean Energy B.C., the province’s sustainable energy industry association. Premier John Horgan says “electrification” is coming. It’s coming fast and it’s going to change our lives. It has to, because B.C. is committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent by 2030.

B.C.’s clean growth strategy is due in just a few weeks and it will need some pretty airtight math to convince Green party leader and climatologist Andrew Weaver to continue to prop up this government.

“It’s time for a whole-of-government approach to mitigating the effects of climate change,” said Weaver.

Math is hard, but carbon accounting is infinitely harder. That’s why Clean Energy B.C. has produced a white paper that illustrates just how much change is coming. The government’s plan — which promises to get B.C. 75 per cent of the way to its goal — will require significant retraining for electricians and heating contractors, plenty of government rebate programs, an overhaul of the way we extract and move natural gas, billions of dollars worth of transmission lines in northeast B.C. and some mental gymnastics about who has to account for the carbon produced by LNG.

The wind, solar and run-of-river projects that B.C. Hydro put on hold when the Site C dam was approved will be needed if Horgan’s electrification vision is to be realized, said Clean Energy B.C. executive director Jae Mather.

B.C. Hydro projects power demand will rise less than 17 per cent between 2020 and 2030. “Meeting our GHG goals by 2030 will require a 50 per cent increase in power generation and Site C adds seven per cent,” Mather said. B.C. Hydro — for the moment — is planning on a “slow growth” scenario that is incompatible with our new reality, he said. “But I have $10-billion worth of (clean energy) projects ready to go with 27 First Nations.”

Approving the LNG Canada plant in Kitimat has made the government’s greenhouse gas math that much harder. It’s the herd of elephants in Horgan’s war room. Because its core liquefaction process is fuelled by natural gas, the plant will produce 26 million tonnes of liquid natural gas a year and release four million tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to company spokesperson Susannah Pierce. Critics such as Weaver put the emission figure closer to eight million tonnes, a 13-per-cent increase in B.C.’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Building an all-electric LNG plant — like B.C.’s Woodfibre and Tilbury Island plants, or the monster plant under construction in Texas — would dramatically cut the project’s footprint, but the design of the gas-fired plant is a train that has been in motion for years and it cannot turn, said Mather.

“We have more plants coming — Chevron is interested  — but we need to insist that they be electrified,” he said.

When our overseas customers burn that fuel it will release another 38 million tonnes of CO2 for every 13 million tonnes of LNG we export, but that so-called “negative externality” will likely not figure in the provincial government’s arithmetic.

“Those emissions are someone else’s problem,” said Mather. “Sure it’s less than the coal they would have burned, but not much less.”

The basic math is this: We are committed to reducing our 2007 benchmark greenhouse gas emissions of about 65 million tonnes to about 39 million tonnes by 2030. We are down to 63 million tonnes, but we are about to add four to eight million tonnes from a single LNG plant, with more plants on the way.

So, as the Soup Nazi might say: No fossil fuels for you! “Two thirds of our energy is supplied by fossil fuels and we can’t meet our targets without transitioning a big chunk of that to electricity,” said Mather. “Meeting our 2050 target will mean transitioning the vast majority of it.”

Countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany and Sweden — places not so different from Canada — have all reduced their greenhouse gases by 40 per cent, he said. “We can do it, but we have to get started.”

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