How Canada' Electricity is Cleaning Up its Act

October 01, 2019

Canada is a diverse place with a wide range of fuel sources that produce varying GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. A good way to compare the GHG impact of a region’s electricity sources is to look at its generation intensity: the quantity of GHGs emitted per unit of electricity generated. Since different fuels produce varying levels of GHGs, two regions that are producing the same amount of electricity may have different generation intensities. For example, somewhere that relies heavily on hydro and renewables will have a lower generation intensity than somewhere mostly using coal.

Looking at generation intensity per capita allows us to easily compare regions with varying populations. In the animation below we can see how Canada’s provinces and territories compare to one another.

Figure 1: Time lapse graph of provincial and territorial generation intensities

The first thing you might have noticed is the high generation intensity of the territories. The high values in the territories are not a result of generating lots of electricity, as we can see from figure 2, which compares the past, present and projected electricity generation by province and territory.

Figure 2: Electric Generation by Province and Territory

Instead, the high generation intensity of the territories is actually due to having many remote communities that rely more heavily on diesel for electricity generation, causing larger amounts of carbon to be produced per GWh. For this reason we’ll remove the territories to better compare generation intensities of the provinces. Let’s take a look:

Figure 3: Time lapse graph of provincial generation intensities

There’s a lot of interesting things jumping out from this animation so let’s just touch on a few key things.

PEI’s drastic drop between 2000 and 2005
Between 2005 and 2010 there is a pretty big drop in generation intensity for PEI. Now what happened there? In this time period, PEI switched from using a diesel generator to importing backup electricity from New Brunswick, as well as generating more of their own from wind power. Currently PEI is a net importer of electricity and sources approximately 60% of its electricity from New Brunswick.

Quebec staying low with hydro
While Quebec generates the most electricity in the country, it’s interesting to find it has one of the lowest generation intensities of all the provinces. This is because of the large hydropower capacity of the province, over 80% (see figure 4) . With hydropower being emissions-free, Quebec is a great example of a situation where generation capacity doesn’t necessarily correlate with generation intensity.

Figure 4: Capacity Mix by Province and Territory, 2014 and 2040

Ontario’s coal plant closures
While Ontario has a relatively low generation intensity average compared to the rest of the provinces, there has been a noticeable decline in the graph over the years. In 2014 Ontario became the first North American government to eliminate coal-fired electricity generation, the largest single GHG reduction action in North America. In 2001, Ontario had five coal-fired generating stations and coal went from 25% of Ontario’s supply mix in 2003 to zero in 2014 once all of them were closed. We can see Ontario’s generation intensity decline drastically to almost 1/5 of what it was from 2003 and 2014.

Declining trend across Canada
While different provinces show variable changes over the years, the general trend is that Canada’s generation intensity has (thankfully!) been on a downwards path. The Canadian generation intensity per capita dropped by nearly half between 2005 and 2016.

What about the future?
While we don’t have projections of generation intensities for the future we do know that many provinces and territories have adopted targets for reducing emissions from electricity generation (Table 1).

If provinces and territories aim to reach their targets and reduce GHG emissions we should expect a declining trend of generation intensity to continue throughout Canada.