Manitoba’s future is electric
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For decades, Manitoba has lived in the shadow of its two wealthier neighbours to the west. The economies of Alberta and Saskatchewan have been built on fossil fuels which, during boom times, fill financial coffers to overflowing. Manitoba is the poor cousin, reliant on federal transfers to prop up its finances. But the times, they are a-changin’.
The beginning of the pandemic, with the slowdown of the global economy and falling demand for fossil fuels, gave us a glimpse of the near future. Heavy oil from Alberta was worth less than zero. You couldn’t give the stuff away.
Decarbonization of the global economy is picking up speed rapidly, and we shall see falling demand for fossil fuels in the not-distant but near future. Which is good, because we don’t have much time — less than a decade, according to the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change, to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change.
Manitoba enjoys advantages in energy transition few others can match. Deep decarbonization will require electrification of the economy from top to bottom. And that is more doable here than in almost any other place on the planet.
When confronted with a challenge, there are two types of people. The first identify the key problems and work to find solutions to them. They are the ones you want. The second are the ones who find excuses for why something cannot be done. They are the ones you don’t want. Manitoba Hydro appears to be full of the latter.
If our electric utility has a vision for an electric future, it isn’t sharing it. Most of its public statements are about why we can’t do the things that others, such as BC Hydro, are already doing. To be fair, Manitoba Hydro is working diligently on a better website.
The spinoff Crown corporation, Efficiency Manitoba, is little better. Greenhouse-gas (GHG) reduction is barely mentioned in its legislative mandate, and its targets for reducing natural gas use are laughably modest.
By contrast, BC Hydro is blazing the path to the future. It has built out a network of EV charging stations across the province to serve a large and rapidly growing EV population. Manitoba Hydro has built none. Without that key infrastructure, we can’t electrify personal transportation — which, with residential heating, is among the biggest sources of GHGs in our province.
Manitoba Hydro states we lack the capacity to displace fossil fuels from the economy. It relies on what outside experts declare are outmoded and unrealistic estimates of demand, overlooking the obvious benefits of efficiency measures.
By contrast, BC Hydro rolled out its CleanBC electrification plan to wean British Columbians off fossil fuels. It offers rebates to switch from natural gas to electricity in homes, transportation and industry, and didn’t moan when cities such as Vancouver and Victoria banned natural gas in new-home construction.
We can increase supply by building out cheap, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar at a far lower cost than new dam construction. Solar is now the cheapest source of energy, but needs to be coupled to storage for when the sun doesn’t shine. Manitoba has that already: our existing hydroelectric dam system. Integrating wind and solar with hydro production can expand our electricity supply at low cost.
Beyond wind and solar, we can develop hydrogen for its convenient energy-storage properties. The recent federal budget focused on green hydrogen production. That technology now exists and costs are falling rapidly. Integrating storage — which takes many forms beyond just batteries — creates opportunities to even out supply over the day and year.
Storing surplus solar production on long summer days as hydrogen is an obvious choice. Green hydrogen production is especially well-suited to replace diesel generation in remote communities, and is a perfect commodity for export. No one worries about hydrogen spills.
More local energy production also reduces the need to import fuel from distant sources, leaving the economy less vulnerable to unexpected shocks, such as from megalomaniac dictators invading neighbouring countries.
Building a state-of-the-art electric economy also creates the economic and social conditions that will help keep our youth in this province and attract newcomers from across the globe. To make this happen, though, we need a government with vision — one able to collaborate with other levels of government, instead of running election ads against them.
Outside of a current provincial government that refuses to see the near future, Manitoba Hydro stands as the biggest impediment to an inevitable energy transition. New leadership there is obviously needed.
Get it right, and we’ll soon be powering ahead quickly and quietly, waving goodbye to our neighbours and watching their fading fossil-fuel economies in the rear-view mirror.
Manitoba’s future is electric. Actually, that would be a pretty good provincial slogan.
Scott Forbes is a University of Winnipeg ecologist who teaches on sustainable ecology.