The Electron and the Elephant in the Room
The push is on to “reset” global economies with a decisive emphasis by many governments – Canada included – to champion green energy policies. But if we scratch below the jargon and the virtue signaling behind many of these ‘hot press’ political announcements, we may pause to consider what this really means for the power sector and everyday consumers.
Our Prime Minister’s political agenda is heavily invested in shifting toward the ‘clean and green’ options for energy production: wind, solar, biomass, co-gen technology, geothermal, etc. (WSG). So too south of the border with President Biden’s policy objective of 100% renewable energy in the power sector by 2035! Ambitious, to be sure…but what does this actually mean?
Well, for starters the push to ‘green’ the power machine will come with a massive price tag – not just in terms of funds needed to invest in the WSG transition, but also in the form of heavy investment in distribution and transmission infrastructure (i.e., the Grid).
The recent black-swan cold snap in Texas demonstrated that not all Grids are prepared (or even capable) of dealing with demand shocks and extreme weather fluctuations. California is yet another example. In fact, in the US many state Grid systems are highly centralized and lack the flexibility to adapt to and deal with system stressors. Many Grid systems are also aging, and power lines are operating at or nearing their maximum capacity.
The projected costs associated with expanding and upgrading the Grid in order to improve capacity and tie-in new renewable generation is the Elephant in the Room…and it’s about to give us all an Electric Shock!!
Bloomberg (BNEF) recently estimated that global investments in Grids could be $28.7 trillion by 2050 – assuming (not unrealistically) a 3x increase in WSG generation capacity and a 60% increase in electricity demand over these next 30 years. The EU alone is expected to account for $4.9 trillion of this under its new decarbonization policy (The Green Deal). The “electrification of everything” (our home heating, our vehicles, etc.) places a tremendous demand on the need for more electrons. The catch is that government policy is focused on ‘green’ electrons – no more coal and less and less natural gas being used to produce the electricity we all need.
Which leads me to the Elephant inside the Electric Vehicle…
The transportation sector is one of the biggest CO2 emitters. Reducing the number of gasoline and diesel vehicles would have a significant impact on cutting carbon emissions. But the electrification of vehicles requires substantial capital Grid investment. More electric vehicles (EVs) on the road means more charging stations and more Grid capacity to meet increased demand for electrons at those stations. Germany is targeting 10 million additional EVs by 2030, which will increase the demand for electricity by an estimated 10%. Similar predictions can be made for North America. To encourage EV transition, Biden recently announced plans for 500,000 new charging stations in the next decade.
I have no doubt that Tesla loves the prospect of selling more $100,000 cars over the next decade in the name of environmental stewardship, but I wonder whether the EV tail is wagging the Grid dog. As a consumer – and taxpayer – should EV vehicle manufacturers pony up to offset the very Grid investments that make their products useful and desirable?
And what should we expect to happen when a greater proportion of our electrons are to be supplied by WSG whose generating facilities are located further from end-consumers? Wind farms, for example, are built where the wind blows – often on big, wide-open prairie expanses – or in the EU, increasingly offshore. Tying remote production into the Grid will be expensive – not just because of the distances to be traversed – but also because the Grid will need to adapt to the type of power provided (i.e., intermittent / non-dispatchable). The Elephant is going to get much bigger.
So, who will foot the cost of that big, fat Elephant?
It is a complex, contentious debate, but if I were a gambler, I would bet on Average Joe.
In Alberta, residential power bills include sizeable distribution and transmission charges. Depending on your location and utility provider, these costs range from 23-52% of your monthly power bill for distribution charges and 13-23% for transmission charges (AUC website). And this is just to get the electricity to your house!
Are Average Joe rate payers and taxpayers really ready for this? Have WSG proponents fairly messaged the costs to Average Joe? Does Elon Musk care, so long as he can sell another Tesla?
While the WSG transition certainly has its benefits, the dialogue to date has largely avoided these questions. If WSG policy wants a real democratic mandate, then these issues must be acknowledged, and these questions must be answered. There will come a time (in 3-5 years?), when these matters will be front and centre, as Average Joe starts to understand the real cost of promises made. We are certainly keen to see how that plays out.