Fossil fuel extraction and dependence are both major contributors to climate change. Did you know that Canada has many alternative, clean, and renewable options? Discover alternative energy sources derived from our natural environment—the sun, wind, moving waters, geothermic processes, and organic matter.
Canada, and its vast geography, is fortunate enough to have abundant stores of energy resources at its disposal. These resources are available in many forms—both renewable and non-renewable—used for generating electricity, fuelling our cars, and helping produce and deliver everything from the alfalfa in your salad to the soles of your running shoes.
Understanding that energy is ingrained into so much of our everyday lives is the first step toward recognizing the importance of responsible energy production. The next step is to look at the options available, and what we can do to support a cleaner future.
Our fossil fuel dependency
Average global temperatures are on the rise, estimated at about 0.75 C since pre-industrial times—largely due to our reliance on fossil fuel energy sources. In 2012, coal, oil, and natural gas supplied 87 percent of all energy consumed in the world.
With the Paris Agreement, adopted by 195 countries at the Paris climate conference in December 2015, governments agreed to a number of key strategies to meet the long-term goal of keeping the global average temperature increase well below 2 C above pre-industrial levels.
Greenhouse gas emissions are a major concern, but so is the emission of other toxic pollutants. And, because resources are finite, rapid extraction risks depleting them entirely.
Despite the risks, fossil fuel extraction has increased in Canada. Oil production increased steadily, until it made up 41.4 percent of all primary energy production, two-thirds of which is exported. It remains to be seen how the present lower price of oil will affect the Canadian fossil fuel industry.
Renewable resources, on the other hand, refer to energy sources that are naturally replenishable. These energy sources derive from our natural environment—the sun, wind, moving waters, geothermic processes, and organic matter.
Electricity from renewable sources
Hydroelectric power relies on heavy water flows to move massive turbines, which in turn generate electricity. The process requires large volumes of fast-moving water, often incorporating dams to store immense reservoirs of water in order to create the high-pressure water flows.
Canada is the third-largest producer of hydroelectricity in the world—59 percent of total electricity generated each year in this country is hydroelectric. Quebec is Canada’s largest producer, generating more than 40 gigawatts, 92 percent of its total electricity, in 2014. BC and Ontario are also big producers in terms of volume, while Manitoba and Newfoundland/Labrador generate almost all of their electricity from hydroelectric generators.
While hydroelectricity is a clean source of renewable energy, it does present other economic, social, and environmental challenges. Dam construction requires huge economic investment, and the resulting infrastructure can displace communities and environmental habitats. Recently, more sustainable, less intrusive hydroelectric projects are being developed for smaller-scale applications.
Wind power is the second most common renewable energy source in Canada, accounting for 4.6 percent of electricity generation in 2014. Quebec and Ontario produce the most wind-generated electricity, but Prince Edward Island is a leader in wind power development, producing 72 percent of all its electricity with wind turbines.
To create wind-powered electricity, large propellers capture strong winds to drive electric generators. Initial costs may be high, but once installed, they require minimal inputs to keep them running—making them cost-competitive with fossil fuel-based energy production over the long term.
Canada’s coastal and offshore regions hold great potential for wind-generated electricity. However, proximity can be a challenge for inland areas.
The sun has been the primary energy source for our planet ever since it became a home for organic life forms. Through the ages, we’ve relied on the sun for heat and light. In more recent decades, photovoltaic cells—the technology that makes up modern solar panels—are what convert sunlight into electricity.
There has been substantial growth in solar electricity generation in recent years, but it still makes up a small proportion of total electricity in Canada—less than 0.3 percent. Its potential is considered mild compared to other regions in the world.
Challenges include shorter daylight hours during winter and significant cloud cover in coastal regions. Still, it’s estimated that half of all Canadian residences could be powered by solar panels installed on residential rooftops.
Tidal and geothermal
Tidal and geothermal energy sources have much potential, but neither is used much in Canada—yet. With vast amounts of ocean exposure, the natural momentum of surrounding tides may be a significant untapped resource for Canadians. The only tidal power plant in North America, and one of the few in the world, is the Annapolis Tidal Station in Nova Scotia, which can generate up to 20,000 megawatts per year.
Geothermal energy, where earth-energy systems tap into underground heat sources, is becoming more popular in new building construction. In 2010, there were more than 95,000 ground-source heat pumps in use, producing an estimated equivalent of 1,420 gigawatt hours per year.
Geothermal energy may also have major potential to generate electricity—especially in BC, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and Alberta, but no major infrastructure has been established.
Renewable natural gas
Natural gas has long been considered a non-renewable fossil fuel. While it burns cleaner and emits less carbon dioxide than coal or oil-based fuels, it’s still a carbon-heavy emitter with a finite supply trapped beneath the earth’s crust.
Extraction itself can be harmful to the environment, as drilling, pumping, and transporting risks leaking methane—a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—into the earth’s atmosphere. Extraction also risks contamination of nearby soils and water systems—and can disrupt natural habitats.
Find out how one innovative company is gathering and harnessing green natural gas to produce energy that’s improving our lives in the sidebar “Green natural gas” on page 72.
As the effects of climate change become more prevalent, energy issues have become paramount. Rather than burrowing deep into our finite reserves, the quality of our future may depend on our ability to harness the energy that already surrounds us.
Green natural gas
Not all natural gas is trapped beneath the earth’s surface. It also exists all around us within the earth’s natural carbon cycle.
Bullfrog Power has been furthering Canada’s clean energy infrastructure since 2005—and has recently begun supporting green natural gas initiatives. “Green natural gas comes from decaying organic matter in landfills, like orange peels, egg shells, and grass clippings,” says Josephine Coombe, senior VP of sales and marketing at Bullfrog Power.
“When this natural material decomposes, an energy-rich gas is produced that can be cleaned and then injected into the natural gas system.
“Green natural gas releases only the carbon dioxide that is part of the natural carbon cycle and would be produced in any event by the decay of organic waste. It is the same carbon dioxide that is needed by the next generation of plants and animals to grow,” says Coombe. In other words, green natural gas has a net-zero impact on atmospheric carbon levels.
alive supports renewable energy by paying into both Bullfrog Power’s Green Electricity and Green Natural Gas energy solutions, which support both utility-scale and small, community-based projects across Canada.
Supporting these projects means increasing resources for innovation and deployment of green energy technologies—and it’s also a means to furthering public conversation.
Building a green energy future
“Our customers choose to pay a green energy premium to reduce the environmental impact of their homes and businesses and to support our transition to a green energy future,” says Coombe.
“We find that our customers are proud to contribute to the broader clean energy movement. We see residents put signs in their yards, showing that they support green energy in their homes. It becomes a conversation piece with neighbours and gets people talking more about these issues.
“Businesses that commit to renewable energy with Bullfrog Power can use the Bullfrog logo on their website and product packages. It shows they’re doing their part by supporting renewable energy—and it also draws attention to energy as an input for these products.”