April 9, 2024 / By Current Affairs

It’s time to get to yes

Despite massive gains over the past year, the electricity sector still faces an enormous challenge with a culture of “no”. Electricity projects are being delayed, or held up in approvals. There are simple solutions that can help make our grid cleaner, more reliable and affordable.

As part of this, Electricity Canada’s newest publication the State of the Industry publication is called “Getting to yes”. This document showcases the challenges and opportunities facing the electricity industry to date. Current Affairs sits down with the co-editor of the report, Graeme Burk, Director of Communications at Electricity Canada to learn more.

Hi Graeme, thanks for joining us. So, what is the State of the Industry?

Every year, Electricity Canada produces a document that where is the electricity industry at? It's something that we use in our lobbying efforts, when we're working with government and stakeholders. It gives a sense of what are the key priorities that are facing the sector right now. It's like a State of the Union, but it's for the electricity sector in Canada.

Why is this report called “Getting to yes”?

When I first started Electricity Canada in 2022, the theme of the state of the industry was ‘Accelerating Net Zero’ because we have a lot to get done, and we have to get moving if we want to make the grid carbon neutral by either 2035 or 2050. Last year, we called it ‘Build It’ because we felt that getting the grid built was a big thing and we were worried that we were losing the daylight, so to speak, and needed to get moving and get building.

This year we decided to not go with these ‘we need to get building’ metaphors and thought, ‘what is it that is keeping us from actually getting moving?’ So we called it ‘Getting to Yes’, because we felt that there are certain things that are just holding us up: Things that are holding us up in terms of regulation. Things that are holding us up in terms of legislation. Things that are holding us up in terms of procedure.

There are a whole variety of things out there that keep us from moving forward and we wanted to explain that a bit more. Our speed at achieving deadlines like 2035 or 2050 are not ramping up like it should.

How is the electricity sector in Canada doing right now?

It was a big year for electricity last year. That's the thing that I think is really important to understand. We made real steps forward towards building a bigger, more reliable and more affordable electricity grid for 2050. The federal budget had almost one dollar out of every eight go to clean electricity projects. It’s a scope for building that has been unseen since the Second World War.

At the same time, since that budget we have had to deal with a great deal of uncertainty. The Clean Electricity Regulations came out in August. They were only the first draft and there are revisions on the way, but there was a lot of frustrations about what was in the draft and how much can be realistically done in the time frames they're asking with the resources that are being allowed.

And then, there's big areas for investment that were announced in the last budget like capital tax credits and carbon capture for difference and neither of those have progressed very far either. So, on the one hand, we have in the big picture a really great situation for electricity that's never been better for the sector. But on the other hand, it's just all these little details that we need to get ironed out so that we can get to that big picture.

What are the things Electricity Canada are most concerned about in this year’s State of the Electricity Industry?

We have concerns getting to build of course. One thing I keep going back to is that in this year's RBC Climate Action Institute report, they charted massive growth for the electricity sector that took into account electric vehicles, home heating and more. But when they actually took a look at our sector specificly, their word of the year for electricity in Canada was moratorium. A lot of projects just keep on getting held up. The Atlantic Loop is probably the biggest example. That was a huge project that I think would have made all kinds of big advances for building infrastructure but it’s been placed on hold indefinitely. And in Alberta, they had a temporary kind of suspension of renewables.

We are concerned about the pace overall. If you look at from the time the first notion of the Clean Electricity Regulations happened, to when first put out, to now, when we're still figuring out what happens next, that was a really long time. And the process of finalizing the CERs is nowhere nearbeing been done. There are lot of long-term projects that are held in the balance as a result.

There's also big tug of war between federal policies and provincial and territorial regulators, and that's one of the biggest problems we noted with over and over was that you've got a federal mandate to decarbonize, and at the same time, you've got regulators who are often kind of working from the rulebook that was devised in the 1960s. This is going to create real problems for large scale interprovincial projects.

What are top concerns going into 2024?

I think reliability and resiliency is the biggest of them. When you look at last year, about 40 to 50% of outages were due to weather related incidents and normally temperate places like Kamloops, British Columbia had recorded 62 hot days over 30 degrees Celsius. In spite of everything that was thrown at the grid, it worked. The equipment had to be closely monitored, and we have definitely pushed ourselves to our operational limit. We’ve got to work hard in 2024 to make sure that we can keep doing that.

Affordability is probably the other big concern we need to make sure the capital costs of building don't wind up being put on electricity bills. I think there's lots of things that we need to do to make sure that building the grid overall is borne by the taxpayer and not by the individual ratepayer.

What surprised you the most when you were writing the report?

I think the thing that surprised me the most was the section on regulation and all the kind of complicated complications in trying to get something built. I mean, on the whole, regulation is quite necessary: we need the government to make sure that companies aren't going to pollute or aren't going to damage the public trust. But at the same time the unnecessarily complicated nature of the Impact Assessment process just boggled my mind! I was astounded that because of project size, it can take forever to get anything through Impact Assessment. In our research, we decided to go look at how many projects went through Impact Assessment and then suspended going through the process for whatever reason. There's at least six such projects and a couple of them were big electricity projects. Which is sobering because no company will start going through that process and all the hurdles that you must get through, unless they're serious about it and want to make a serious investment.

I think government needs to streamline that process so that it becomes easier to move forward because unless we do, people are not going to feel confident enough to invest because they're going to be worried that things are going to get held up again and again and again.

If there is one chapter in the report that you think everybody who works in the electricity sector should read, what chapter would that be?

I really like the chapter on social license. Social license was something I knew nothing about, and our Vice President of Communications and Sustainability, Julia Muggeridge wrote it in a brilliantly accessible way that easily explained the process. We had a case study on SaskPower, and how they have gone about about trying to get people to accept things like Small Modular Reactors and other energy builds, and its really community engagement at its finest. It’s about going to a hockey rink and meeting with people and taking their questions. During COVID they held huge community Zoom calls and the engagement they achieved was just inspiring.

But my main takeaway while I was reading that was: That's the way that we're going to get to yes. It comes from people just figuring out how to talk to each other and getting on with figuring out how to work together. I think that's true for big regulatory things and big interprovincial electricity projects as much as it is about figuring out where the best place to put a Small Modular Reactor is in Estavan, Saskatchewan. It all starts with talking to people.

Read “Getting to Yes : the State of the Canadian Electricity Industry.