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Andrew Evans: Canada’s electrical grid cannot handle the coming demands

Commentary

In 1905, Sir Adam Beck, (who created the precursor to Ontario Hydro), spoke in the Ontario Legislature about the “very great influence upon the commercial development of the Province [that] will be exercised by the furnishing of cheap power.” 

In the time since, cheap power has been the backbone of the prosperity Canada achieved. Fed mostly from large hydroelectric dams, this cut-rate, abundant supply of electricity enabled mass electrification and quality of life soared. Today, we continue to reap the benefits and have a reliable, largely non-emitting grid that is the envy of the world. 

But the demands on our grids are in danger of outstripping our ability to supply them. Ontario is racing to build new nuclear plants safely in order to meet expected demand by 2029 while filling interim demand with new gas plants and a new call for renewables, Quebec is spending up to $185 billion to solidify provincial supply amidst rising demand both in- and out-of-province, and British Columbia is filling a projected 15 percent increase in demand by 2030 with the first acquisition of new generation sources in 15 years. Even Manitoba, a province with abundant and previously boundless supplies of cheap hydroelectricity, is now projecting a deficit by 2029 and is being forced to restrict access to potential new businesses due to supply shortages

To solve the constraints on energy generation and to meet net-zero 2050 targets, the federal government projects that grid demand will be twice that of today by 2050. To meet that rising demand, the output of the grid, which we have accumulated since we have had electricity—roughly the past 140 years—will have to double in the next 26 years.

It’s worth emphasizing this point: if Ottawa’s projections are right, we’ll need to essentially build out the equivalent of today’s electricity supply in less than one-fifth of the time in the face of modern environmental regulations, Indigenous and local consultations, and other bureaucratic processes that invariably slow down the construction of major infrastructure.

Canada’s electricity has been so abundant that we have grown used to reaping the benefits, including those seen by exporting major amounts of electricity to the United States. From these largely silent exports, we garner billions of dollars annually and saw record profits in 2022

Without sufficient surplus to export, these previously reliable financial windfalls will dry up and the provincial ratepayers will face higher costs, while governments who were using these funds to underwrite lower taxes or expanded services may have to re-evaluate. Past yearly trends have shown reductions in total exports, despite continued profits. But the crunch is getting so bad that Quebec, long a source of seemingly limitless electricity, is facing shortages by 2027. U.S. states that have based their decarbonization on Quebec imports are increasingly fearful that agreements will fall through. 

The electricity grid is one of our most complex creations, providing power at any point along the gamut from vast industrial steel mills to the most minute individual demands. Large-scale changes can occur, although time is required to ensure that they do not destabilize the delicate balance. Ottawa’s pursuit of more electrification of the Canadian economy is exacerbating the forecasts of supply shortfalls. Although many of the new technologies that will accompany this electrified life will make our lives easier and better, policymakers must recognize that a cheap, abundant supply of electricity must be available. Without it, there is no way we will achieve our objectives. 

For example, right now there are conflicting policy signals from Ottawa. It has both mandated that all new vehicle sales be electric by 2035, while also encouraging the expansion of heat pump uptake in homes. Both initiatives face headwinds from the Clean Electricity Regulations, which seek to encourage decarbonization in provincial grids by 2035. Such rapid changes to the electricity grid bring extreme risk. Such risks are not good for reliable electricity supply, and costs from risks taken with the electricity system cannot be avoided if they go wrong. This sloppy policymaking endangers our future electricity supply-demand balance. 

Across the country, there is provincial buy-in (even in Alberta and Saskatchewan) for a 2050 net-zero target for electricity grids. Ottawa should take this win, drop the confrontational approach it has now, and seek to build on this progress. The Clean Electricity Regulations should be revoked because they contribute to this confrontation, are politically unnecessary, and do not recognize the unique provincial circumstances. 

An incoming Poilievre government can help to fix this shortage by working with the provinces to fund their existing plans. The federal government should take the position that provinces that want to build should be able to. This can be enabled by providing large-scale, cut-rate loans to build new electricity infrastructure, for both generation and transmission capacity. These loans could also feature structuring arrangements wherein the more megawatts the project was to produce or transmit, the less the interest. Such incentives can allow Canadian policymakers to think bigger and unlock megawatts for booming populations and industries. Similarly, if the project was non-emitting, it could be eligible for lower interest rates. By enabling the construction of projects that have made it through the provincial policy gauntlet without overly constricting provincial choices, Ottawa can act constructively. 

Manitoba Hydro power lines are photographed just outside Winnipeg, Monday, May 1, 2018. John Woods/The Canadian Press.

Aligning with the anti-gatekeeper message, the federal government should activate the Canada Energy Regulator to break down silos in provincial grids by conducting work to pre-authorize new transmission corridors between provinces. The approval of transmission lines can easily take over a decade, while provincial silos in electricity grids promote unnecessarily expensive construction of new generation sources, causing higher consumer costs. 

Additionally, with much of our existing transmission capacity created for Canada-U.S. trade, much of our import/export trade does not occur between provinces but instead between provinces and states. Though this is partly due to the higher prices that will be paid in the U.S., with a lack of interprovincial transmission, there are hard, low, thresholds for internal Canadian electricity trade.

For instance, if we look at the three largest electricity exporting provinces in 2022, about 74 percent of British Columbia’s total exports were to the U.S., 63 percent of Quebec’s exports were to the U.S., and 81 percent of Ontario’s total exports were to the U.S. Creating more potential avenues for interprovincial electricity trade by facilitating commercially-viable shovel-ready projects that would have permitting complete would substantially reduce barriers to new construction. With more interprovincial electricity trade capacity, increased future trading of electricity in Canada could become a more likely reality, should there become an economic incentive. 

If Canada is to meet the moment and come through the challenges ahead, a more cooperative intergovernmental stance is required. This will see increased construction of generation and transmission, greater interprovincial trade of electricity, greater speed in approvals, and more coherent use of policy to clearly signal economic outcomes. 

With this approach, Canada can improve growth and productivity, helping to improve living standards, quality of life, and overall direction of the country. Without these necessary changes, missed emissions reduction commitments from Ottawa and mismanagement of our vaunted electricity sector will be just another marker on the road to decline. 

Michael Kempa: Crime is surging and Canadians are being left with one message: You’re on your own

Commentary

When it comes to skyrocketing auto theft across Canada—double-digit percentage increases more frequently tied to carjackings and breaking into homes in search of keys—recent frank personal safety advice from the Toronto Police Service has sent a clear and unfortunate message to Canadians: You are on your own.

Last week, statements made by Toronto police constable Marco Ricciardi at an Etobicoke public safety meeting earlier in February went viral, and for good reason. Ricciardi warned that car theft is now so aggressive and so brazen, that residents would be wise to leave their key fobs close to their front doors. Why you might ask? To prevent car thieves from entering deeply enough into homes that violent confrontations with owners would become more likely. These thieves are armed with “real” and “loaded” guns, the constable Ricciardi ominously intoned.

Suggesting that citizens simply give up and make it easier for car thieves to steal their property reads like an admission that the police have lost control over a dangerous and costly problem. Auto thefts are exploding across Canada, with Ontario in particular becoming a “candy store” fueling a rail pipeline that runs to the Montréal ports and global markets directed by organized crime.

In Toronto, vehicle theft is up 150 percent over the past six years, with insurance associations listing it as over a 1.2 billion dollar problem. The city’s police chief recently stated that there were over 12,000 vehicles stolen in 2023—a 24 percent increase in a single year and a 300 percent increase since 2015. A vehicle is now stolen approximately every 40 minutes in Canada’s most populous city.

It is not reasonable to tell citizens to fend for themselves against such sophisticated and motivated adversaries.

Organized crime expands its tentacles into all opportunities for extraordinary profit. The pandemic has created many such exploitable distortions, including human trafficking, trading in counterfeit vaccines, and coordinated shoplifting.  In the case of auto theft, prices of newer used vehicles have been driven sky-high due to the scarce availability of new inventory and supply chain disruptions for microchips, which slows down production.

With a lucrative market at their feet, organized criminals have exploited loopholes in Canadian law to run circles around police officers.

The first involves simply taking advantage of jurisdictional ambiguities and the inertia that results when multiple agencies involved in combating auto theft bump up against one another. 

When a car is lifted from an innocent person’s driveway, it is often then parked for a day or two in a public place and monitored by thieves at a distance to determine whether the vehicle is being electronically tracked. This is most often done by private companies whose owners contract for these services. If these companies are actually able to locate the stolen vehicle, they typically mobilize police. However, if there are no suspects on the scene, these officers treat the theft as a low-priority call. Remember they also have assaults, break-and-enters, and domestic violence to deal with.

Often, thieves will then move that untended vehicle by train, which is under the separate jurisdiction of railway police.

It could then arrive at  Montreal shipping ports, under the watchful gaze of the Canada Border Services Agency. Keep in mind, on a typical day, there are mere single-digit CBSA agents available to monitor thousands of shipping containers at a major port. Even if police know a vehicle is in a particular port yard, it becomes a needle in a haystack. There is but a minute number of border agents literally working against the shipping clock to find it. Meanwhile, regular police are often left waiting on judicial warrants to lend assistance.

The second loophole criminals regularly take advantage of is recruiting legal minors (often members of street gangs) to conduct commissioned theft. The entire thrust of Canada’s youth justice system is to avoid incarcerating young people in secure facilities in favour of encouraging their rehabilitation within—and reintegration into—the community. In other words, young car thieves stand to earn healthy payments from organized crime syndicates while risking little custody time.

When the thieves are adults, delays pending trial mean suspects are likely to be released on bail for months on end with a level of supervision stretched thin to the point of near nonexistence. Canada’s bail system over the last three decades has become extraordinarily risk-averse, to the point that the great majority of people across the country currently held in provincial prisons—upwards of 80 percent in Ontario—are awaiting trial. This leaves little room to hold many further suspects on remand.

If we are failing to prevent the high volume of crime many argue is committed by a small number of repeat offenders, it follows that we must be holding far too many of the wrong types of accused offenders. Given that car theft is increasingly a repeat offence tied to home invasion and violence, we need to make some remand space for these accused in our prisons by returning to our historical practice of releasing less risky offenders on bail. Or we could entirely divert less serious cases to alternative measures, including restorative justice.  

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Toronto Chief of Police Myron Demkiw before the National Summit on Combatting Auto Theft, Thursday, February 8, 2024, in Ottawa. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

Some promising moves have been made. However, because they are piecemeal, they fail to address the capacity of the range of security and criminal justice agencies needed to work together. The Trudeau government recently made car theft the focal point of its winter retreat, signalling that harsher penalties are coming in the Criminal Code. They also promised to make hundreds of millions of dollars available to provinces to support combating the problem (along with gun and gang violence). In Ontario, the Ford government has supported the efforts of police organizations to create special task forces and partnerships. There have been reports of some successes.

Bolder action involving evidence-driven decisions about which crimes should be prioritised for processing through a prosecution and corrections system with a finite capacity would be reassuring to citizens 

Public education about the sophistication of organized crime would be beneficial. People need to know that this spike in auto theft may be a shorter-term problem, requiring temporarily focused policing and policy responses, until the market for newer model used cars begins to normalise.

Giving citizens the idea they are on their own, however, is a dangerous message that Canadians are getting used to hearing in an increasingly disorderly post-pandemic world. Economic, ecological, and geopolitical turmoil have fuelled extraordinary opportunities for organized crime to make profits and for hostile ideological opponent states and other groups to fan instability and fear in Western democracies. To the public’s eye, the police seem incapable of managing the fallout, whether it is addressing opportunistic spikes in property crime, increasingly well-resourced and confrontational mass protests, or corruption where domestic political representatives are compromised by foreign interference. This then fuels a resigned public acceptance of an increasingly feudal world order, where frightened citizens bunker down to ride out the seemingly endless uncertainty. 

The dark but inevitable endpoint of downloading responsibility for crime prevention and personal safety upon citizens can be seen in places like South Africa and Brazil. In Canada, homeowners are now being given door stops by police to prevent door kick break-ins and are being told it’s on them to invest in alarm systems and security cameras. In South Africa and Brazil, residents with any resources to protect themselves now live in homes hidden behind high walls topped with razor wire, equipped with panic buttons and guarded by heavily armed private security meant to deter home invaders.

Canada must reverse this dark trend. We need to give people hope that the state has what it takes to secure our more courageous forays into open public and commercial life. It all starts with effective policing and community safety.