Electricity as a clean source of energy: Quebec’s example
October 30, 2020
October 30, 2020
How one province has set the stage for carbon reduction at the societal level
This article first appeared as “Electric Quebec” in the Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 10.
Reducing the carbon appetite in the developed world and its effect on climate change can seem daunting—insurmountable even—for those committed to addressing climate change. But today we have case studies and examples from communities that have taken the initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the societal level.
One such case is the province of Quebec, where I live. Over the previous three decades, we have put building blocks in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). It worked and (up until the pandemic) had a positive impact on the economy. Quebec is a good example because of its economy, climate, and geography, but also because it has done a good job of making carbon reduction a viable business. As an engineer with a specialty in deep energy retrofits, I know how to marry the downstream building energy consumption with the upstream clean and affordable energy provided by Quebec.
I believe that Quebec could be a blueprint for the rest of Canada and for the US, where with the right ingredients (for example, hydro, solar and wind, and increased telecommuting, etc.) we can set the stage to fuel an economic boom and drive responsible use of fossil fuels in a less carbon-dependent future. But how best to accomplish this?
In Quebec, we rely on water and gravity for our electricity. While the initial investment might be large, hydroelectric power is relatively cheap and the infrastructure lasts a century or more with the occasional turbine replacement. The embodied carbon invested in hydro lasts a long time. While there are environmental concerns around dam placement, hydroelectric power, where feasible, is in my opinion a sustainable choice. In Quebec, we upped the price on natural gas and made electricity cheap and reliable. Then, we applied a carbon tax and funded incentives.
Through inexpensive and cleaner electricity, as well as utility, provincial, and federal rebates, Quebec incentivized practices like LED lighting installation in residences and businesses. Concurrently it has incentivized the installation of 240-volt (V) chargers and the purchase of zero emissions vehicles.
Fossil fuels like natural gas are unlikely to go away completely. They have a place in functions such as aviation, which represent a small percentage of overall GHG emissions. Shouldn’t we, then, be conserving these fuels for their best application?
Why build 50 dams if you only need 20? Quebec has set the stage to reduce energy consumption by buildings. Homeowners and businesses, paying a low price per kilowatt-hour (kWh), are encouraged to invest in efficient electric systems. Homeowners are switching to electrical heating systems (e.g. heat pumps and electric baseboards) instead of boilers, thereby reducing natural gas consumption.
Cheap, clean, and reliable electricity has simplified the business case for consultants and service providers. They can easily show commercial clients how investing in deep energy retrofits will affect their bottom line and more accurately estimate payback periods. This has allowed energy performance contracts, in which retrofit services and investment are paid back from energy cost savings, to flourish.
By making energy retrofitting a viable business, it’s easier for large organizations and corporate clients such as IKEA or the Canadian government to invest in efficiency measures. The market for technology is better, for one thing. For my client IKEA, I could choose an efficient off-the-shelf frictionless maglev heat pump and chiller that would pay for itself quickly rather than suggesting a custom technology solution that was harder to financially justify.
Fossil fuels like natural gas are unlikely to go away completely. They have a place in functions such as aviation, which represent a small percentage of overall GHG emissions. Shouldn’t we, then, be conserving these fuels for their best application? Hybrid geothermal systems, for example, in which the heat pump handles energy needs most of the year and burns natural gas only when needed, are a great option for cold weather climates.
To make meaningful progress against our targets, we need to creatively approach carbon appetite reduction and find the best solution for each situation.
It took at least 30 years and public investment. But, Quebec set the stage for the private sector to get the jobs of electrification, energy retrofits, and carbon reduction done. Moreover, the progress in greening Quebec’s energy landscape was not achieved at the expense of its natural gas utility, which prospered and diversified into renewable energy production. It’s time for the rest of North America to take a look at Quebec and ask: How can we do the same?