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Global Electric Renewables

By Denise Mullen

The data is clear:  transitioning to a less carbon-intensive global energy system is necessary if the world is to have any prospect of addressing climate change. The process is underway, and although renewables still make up a relatively small percentage of total global energy production and consumption,[1] their contribution is growing — and doing so at a brisk pace, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: 
Total EJ (10^18) and Percent of Renewable Energy Production Increase Between 2013 and 2016

Source:  International Renewable Energy Agency.


Between 2016 and 2017, global investment in non-hydro renewable electricity generation increased by 17% overall, with solar photovoltaics leading the way followed by wind. Total investment in 2017 was ~US$280 billion[2] with capacity additions larger than for fossil fuels used in electricity production over the same period.[3]

Figure 2: 
Percent Increase in Renewable Electricity Consumption by Sector, 2013 to 2016

Source:  International Renewable Energy Agency.

Both Canada and British Columbia have also seen increases in investment in and generation from renewables. For Canada, between 2005 and 2016 total power generation capacity rose by 20%.  Most of the new capacity was in the form of renewables (hydro, wind, biomass/geothermal, and solar), with wind and solar leading the way; there was also investment in new natural gas-fired facilities. In total, in 2016 renewables accounted for 66% of Canadian electricity generation capacity — 55% hydro and 11% other; adding nuclear raises the share of carbon-free generation in Canada to 76%. Renewable gigawatt hours accounted for 65% of total electrons, while including nuclear boosts this to 80%.  Non-hydro renewables provided about 7% of total gigawatt hours produced.[4]

British Columbia’s electricity generating system is already more than 97% renewables. Over the 2005 to 2016 time frame, total capacity grew by ~18%, largely from the development of independent power producer (IPP) projects selling to B.C. Hydro. Of historical note, B.C. initiated the process for adding IPPs to its portfolio of resources in 1989. As of April 1, 2018, these projects represented about ~5 GW of installed capacity, generating ~21,500 GWh of electricity[5] or 0.08 EJ. For comparison, the global total generation in 2016 was ~90 EJ.

The physics of electricity production mean its generation, transmission and distribution is regional, not national and certainly not global. Canada does not have a national grid. Rather, our regions are connected north-south to electric interconnections, commonly referred to as reliability regions, all members of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.[6] The western interconnection makes up 20% of all capacity in Canada and the United States.  It also makes up 35% percent of all wind and solar capacity, and 40 percent of all hydro capacity, in North America.[7]

This “mutual fund” of resources, a mix of public and private utilities, a strong regulatory system, entrepreneurs who explore and advance solutions to improve the environmental performance of the electricity sector along with deploying new technology solutions, and broad and deep operations management expertise in the sector, together constitute a set of assets without parallel in the world.

British Columbia is a critical partner in the western interconnection system. We are also blessed with a remarkable array of energy resources both renewable and non-renewable, all of which are a foundation for economic prosperity and contribute significantly to the well-being of British Columbians. Energy, energy diversity, and renewable energy remains a critical part of our future for the province and for the country.

Our electricity system is what most nations in the world aspire to develop. Canada and B.C are ahead of the curve by miles. We should celebrate this fact, not least because in an increasingly digital world, reliable, clean, on-demand electricity is vital.[8]