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B.C.’s net-zero ambitions adding to energy security anxiety

British Columbians are currently more worried about affordability than the environment
A March 2024 image of the approach channel around the Site C dam

Carbon taxes may currently be a lightning rod for political and public opposition, but they are not the only climate action policy about which British Columbians are increasingly concerned.

The cost of the energy transition necessary to power B.C.’s net-zero ambitions, and broader concerns about energy security and affordability, have more worried about heating their homes than about the warming of the planet.

Generally, British Columbians are most concerned about housing and the cost of living than the environment, according to recent polling by Research Co., which found that only eight per cent of respondents reported the environment to be a top concern.

“It’s very difficult to ask people to be more environmentally active when they’re already struggling with things and you’re asking them to sacrifice a little bit more,” said Research Co. president Mario Canseco. “The idea of net zero in 2050 is great, but if it’s going to cost me more money, then I’m not as interested as I could have been.”

The B.C. government’s CleanBC roadmap sets ambitious targets for how the province will achieve “net zero” by 2050, including a 40-per-cent reduction in provincial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 2007 levels by 2030.

At a recent Conversations That Matter panel discussion on the net-zero economy, former B.C. environment minister Barry Penner suggested achieving a 40-per-cent reduction in just six years is unrealistic.

When his government brought in B.C.’s first climate action policies—including Canada’s first carbon tax—in 2008, it set a target of a 33-per-cent reduction by 2020.

“I’m sorry to admit to you that that was not successful,” he said.

Indeed, B.C.’s gross GHG emissions have declined by a mere 2.8 per cent, from 63.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2007 to 62 million tonnes in 2021, according to the B.C. Ministry of Environment.

Asked if he thinks net-zero targets adopted by the B.C. and federal governments are realistic, sustainable energy economist Mark Jaccard said it depends.

“Net zero by 2050 still seems reasonable and affordable wherever politicians keep sincerely pushing with serious policies for gradual transition of the capital stock,” he told BIV. The capital stock he mentioned includes things like vehicles, buildings, power plants and industry.

“As for targets for 2030, it depends on the jurisdiction. Some places have made amazing progress. For example, buildings in Norway and Sweden are now almost completely de-carbonized—decades before 2050.”

There are growing concerns that interim net-zero targets are not just unrealistic, but will be costly and will push ordinary citizens into energy poverty.

The Business Council of British Columbia (BCBC) has pointed to the B.C. government’s own modelling, which suggests that B.C.’s economy could be $28 billion smaller in 2030 because of CleanBC policies.

Nancy Olewiler, an economics professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy and co-chair of the province’s Climate Solutions Council, has noted that the modelling data cited by BCBC failed to account for the offsetting growth that will come from a new clean economy.

In an op-ed for BIV, she pointed to a Clean Energy Canada paper that forecasts clean energy jobs in Canada will grow at seven per cent per year, from 509,000 in 2025 to 2.7 million by 2050.

Ordinary British Columbians may be less concerned about CleanBC’s broad impacts to GDP than they are about their heating bills. In a country that gets well-below zero degrees Celsius for days at a time, Canadians who rely on natural gas for warmth may be loath to give it up for electric heat pumps.

CleanBC would effectively restrict the sale and installation of new natural gas furnaces and water heaters after 2030 by requiring all new space and water heating equipment sold and installed in B.C. to be “100 per cent efficient.” It also would effectively ban natural gas for heating and cooking in new buildings through a new Zero Carbon Step Code.

Penner, who is now chair of the Energy Futures Initiative, said he understands British Columbians’ energy anxiety. He had heat pumps installed in his own home, but maintained some heating redundancy in the form of both baseboard heating and a natural gas fireplace. While the heat pumps are up to the task most of the time, they do struggle when it gets well below zero, he said.

Last winter in Chilliwack, the temperate dropped to around minus 16 Celsius for a couple of days, Penner said.

“My gas fireplace did a lot of the heavy lifting when the temperature was at minus 16,” Penner said. “My baseboard heaters were going on too. I understand why people would feel at risk if they put all of their heating eggs in the electricity basket because occasionally, we do get power outages, especially during winter storms.

“If it’s a day or two when the outdoor temperature is minus 20 or colder, that is very serious, especially if you don’t have an alternative heat source.”

CleanBC aims to replace fossil fuels wherever possible with clean electricity. But that means billions will need to be spent on new power generation and transmission, and some are starting to wonder who will pay for it all.

Richard McCandless, a former senior B.C. government bureaucrat who now blogs about B.C. public policy, estimates that replacing the energy currently supplied by natural gas with electricity would require a staggering amount of new power generation.

“Any plans to decarbonize the province’s energy supply must explain how such a massive undertaking is to be achieved, and at what cost to BC Hydro’s ratepayers,” he wrote.

BC Hydro recently issued a new power call—the first in 15 years—to obtain 3,000 gigawatt hours of new clean electricity. That is roughly two-thirds the capacity of B.C.’s new Site C dam, which is still under construction. It is expected that most of the new power supplied under the call will come from wind.

Penner said he thinks 3,000 gigawatt hours will not be nearly enough power to support the provincial government’s push to electrify the B.C. economy. He argues it is far better for the economy to have a surplus of power than to not have enough.

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