Clean Energy in Manitoba: Are we really leading the way?

On Nov. 20, 2012 the province released the Manitoba Clean Energy Strategy (MCES). The strategy outlines how the province plans to develop renewable energy and was created in accordance with the principles presented in Manitoba’s Green Plan, TomorrowNow.

The MCES envisions Manitoba as a leader in renewable energy production and a future without fossil fuels, but will actions presented in the strategy live up to this vision? Some would say it doesn’t go far enough.

The MCES lists five key components: building new hydro, leading Canada in energy efficiency, keeping rates low, growing renewable energy alternatives, and freedom from fossil fuels. Each section includes priority actions.

The first section is dedicated to Manitoba’s past achievements and future goals in expanding hydroelectricity generation. According to the strategy, the expansion of hydroelectricity generation will serve to supply growing demand domestically as well as to supply export markets in other provinces and the U.S.

Priority actions outlined in this section include multiple new Manitoba Hydro projects that will be developed as export contracts are signed. In addition, the province expects the expansion of Manitoba Hydro’s transmission network to improve reliability of the system while increasing export capacity.

The other four sections follow in the same format. Some other highlights of the strategy include a Pay-As-You-Save (PAYS) financing system (the first of its kind in Canada and worth checking out), placing Bill 18—the Affordable Utility Rate Accountability Act—into law, launching a Fossil Fuel Freedom campaign that promotes a path for individuals and households to move away from the use of fossil fuels, and preparing for and accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles in Manitoba.

MCES Shortcomings

Although the MCES plan provides a positive outlook for moving the province toward a more sustainable and resilient energy system, some would say the strategy misses a few key elements.

Weaknesses in Manitoba’s energy system include the sources of transportation fuel, primarily gasoline and diesel imports, and the lack of diversity in energy projects and providers in the province. Improving Manitoba’s energy system in these areas would help to achieve goals outlined in MCES while building local energy resilience.

Energy use in Manitoba is divided roughly into thirds between electricity (making up 29 per cent of total energy use), transportation fuels (contributing 35 per cent of all energy use), and residential space heating (which makes up 36 per cent of all energy use).

Whereas electricity in Manitoba currently comes from 98 per cent renewable resources, 94 per cent of transportation fuel is supplied by non-renewable fossil fuels.  This high number presents a significant barrier to Manitoba’s goal of achieving freedom from fossil fuels – one of the cornerstones of the MCES.

Because the province has access to cheap, local energy in its hydroelectricity and is currently striving to increase capacity of the system, the City of Winnipeg would be an ideal candidate to become a leader in electric transportation. Because Manitoba’s electricity comes from primarily renewable sources, a switch to electric transportation would lead not only to a significant decrease in greenhouse gases but would also have huge economic benefits.

In total, Manitobans currently spend two to three billion dollars annually on imported fuel for transportation. As the vast majority of this fuel is imported, this money is therefore lost from Manitoba’s economy. Money saved on fuel by switching to electric vehicles could then stay in the province, increasing GDP.

A shift to electric transportation

The most crucial task in encouraging a shift to electric vehicles is to start building fast-charging stations. Existing outlets are an important piece of infrastructure that gives cold climate regions such as Manitoba an advantage over milder regions not already equipped with these outlets, which are worth an estimated one billion dollars.

Using these outlets to charge vehicles, however, takes up to eight hours. Fast-charging stations known as level three charging stations, on the other hand, can charge an electric vehicle in 15 to 30 minutes.

A shift toward electric transportation is a key component in achieving the province’s goal to move toward fossil fuel freedom in Manitoba; as stated earlier, most fuel currently used for transportation is imported fossil fuel. However, until a concrete commitment has been made to develop adequate infrastructure to support electric vehicles, including level three charging stations, electric vehicle use will likely not catch on in Manitoba.

Another issue worth addressing is that of Manitoba’s energy resilience; that is, how stable and adaptive an energy system is to interruptions in the energy supply. Various methods can be used to build resilience, including increasing renewable energy resources, increasing energy efficiency, and decentralizing the energy system.

Although the first two elements have been addressed to varying extents in the strategy, the concept of decentralization is largely absent. As new global realities such as unstable global oil prices and increasing incidence of extreme weather events continue to emerge, the issue of local energy resilience is becoming increasingly relevant.

Large-scale production of hydroelectricity poses many significant social and environmental costs in Manitoba. To name a few, dams cause flooding and destroy landscapes, which can have serious effects on northern communities by threatening their ability to hunt and fish for food, and the process can lead to pollution of water sources. In addition, although large-scale hydroelectricity comes from a renewable resource, many components of hydro generation, such as production of hydro infrastructure, use fossil fuels. In this regard, hydroelectricity still uses greenhouse gases and is not an entirely clean resource.

Decentralization of energy systems

Manitoba’s energy generation is controlled almost entirely by Manitoba Hydro, leaving the province largely dependent on a single, centralized system. In his new book, Power from the People, Greg Pahl discusses issues associated with centralized energy systems and pushes for local renewable energy production as a means of building local resilience.  Pahl argues that local energy production should become a key component of energy planning given the changing realities of increasingly common extreme weather events and concerns about peak oil.

In addition, Chris Martenson argues in his chapter of The Post Carbon Reader, that the more, preferably local, sources and systems we have to supply our basic needs, the more resilient we will be. In Manitoba this means encouraging small-scale independent or community-level energy projects.

Although the Clean Energy Strategy acknowledges that energy security is a global challenge, stating that, “Energy security has frayed as grid black-outs, oil blow-outs, wars, hurricanes and tsunamis have threatened energy supplies and repeatedly triggered price spikes,” and recognizes the importance of generating our energy domestically, the plan does little to go further in increasing energy resilience in Manitoba.

“Communities and large commercial users of power should be encouraged to pursue independent or ‘micro’ power installations such as wind or solar,” states Matthew Havens, research associate at the Institute of Urban Studies.

“An important incentive for the success of these installations is feed-in tariffs. Put simply, this is the ability for independent energy producers to sell surplus power back into the grid at reasonable rates. This would provide diversity and a measure of resilience to our energy infrastructure, one that currently relies on a single source and single provider.”

Micro-scale energy production

Manitoba’s Clean Energy Strategy, therefore, could be improved by doing more to create opportunities for micro-scale energy production. Creating an environment that is inclusive to these types of projects benefits all Manitobans by creating a level of energy resilience that cannot be achieved with a centralized system, such as the one that dominates in Manitoba.

To return to the original question: do the actions presented in the Manitoba’s Clean Energy Strategy support its vision of fossil fuel freedom and leadership in renewable energy? Although the strategy makes strides in improving the sustainability and reliability of the province’s energy system, its approach to promoting the adoption of electric vehicles is underwhelming.

In spite of the fact that it recognizes resilience and independence from foreign unpredictable fossil fuels as important, the strategy does little to increase resilience within the province.