Energy Security and Atlantic Canada

Security, the freedom from risk or danger, is commonly used in reference to people or nations. Our view of security has expanded in recent years to include food security when referring to a nation’s ability to feed itself and water security when confronted with the issues of declining water quality. Over the past decade, increasing energy costs, coupled with production often failing to keep up with demand, has resulted in a new type of security, commonly referred to as energy security.

Broadly speaking, energy security involves the policies or actions put in place to ensure that the people living in a jurisdiction have access to reasonably priced and uninterruptible supplies of energy.

Energy security is gaining importance in many countries because of increasing energy costs and supply issues. A growing number of energy-poor countries are becoming increasingly reliant on a dwindling number of energy-rich countries for their supplies: much of western Europe depends upon natural gas from Russia, China is increasing its imports from the Middle East and Africa, while the United States, still the world’s largest consumer of energy, uses its commercial and military might to ensure a steady supply of oil and natural gas.

On paper, Atlantic Canada should be energy secure. Its energy riches include hydroelectricity in Labrador (Churchill Falls), crude oil off the coast of Newfoundland (Hibernia and other fields), and natural gas off the coast of Nova Scotia (Sable) and in New Brunswick. Since most of the energy obtained from these projects is exported, primarily to Quebec and New England, it should not be surprising that most of the energy consumed in Atlantic Canada is imported: oil for transportation, heating, and electrical generation (Venezuela, the Middle East, and the North Sea) and coal for electrical generation (Columbia, Venezuela, and the United States).

Atlantic Canada is not immune from rising energy prices caused by increasing worldwide demand for energy, declining reserves, and rising public expectations in the remaining oil-rich countries. If the region is to achieve any degree of energy security, it will be necessary to reduce its dependence on energy in general and imported energy in particular.

Although demand reduction must take place across all parts of the region’s economy, one of the most important will be space and water heating in the residential and commercial-institutional sectors. Quite simply, it is neither safe nor healthy to live and work in a cold climate without heat.

According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), in 2005, Atlantic Canada’s residential and commercial-institutional sectors used about 176 petajoules of energy (a petajoule is the energy found in 28 million litres of gasoline). Of this, about 132 petajoules, or 75 percent, was used for space and water heating.

Not surprisingly, the energy used for heating varies from province to province; the choice is often dictated by the difference between the price of electricity and the price of heating fuel. For example, in the residential sector, high electricity prices make oil the principal fuel in Prince Edward Island and, to a lesser extent, Nova Scotia. Whereas in Newfoundland and Labrador, the demand is fairly evenly split between oil and electricity, in New Brunswick, electricity is more widely used than heating oil. Wood is also a popular heating fuel, estimated by NRCan to meet about one-fifth of the residential heating requirements. In the commercial-institutional sector, oil (both light and heavy) meets almost 90 percent of the space and water heating demand.

By 2020, NRCan expects the energy demand for heating purposes in Atlantic Canada’s residential and commercial sectors will be over 157 petajoules, an increase from 2005 of about 25 petajoules. NRCan’s projections show little change in how the demand will be met: oil and electricity will remain the energy sources of choice.

Barring some unexpected (and unlikely) oil discovery that floods world markets with inexpensive oil products, it is reasonable to assume that energy prices will climb ever higher between now and 2020. This means that energy security policies are needed more than ever.

One approach that is garnering interest is to use a series of energy “wedges” that target some type of energy use: each wedge starts small and, over a period of time, increases to a maximum. Reducing energy use for heating would require two wedges: one for new construction, and the other for existing buildings.

The new construction wedges would specify building orientation to maximize solar gain and specify the building’s maximum allowable energy consumption. By ensuring that the energy supplied to these buildings came only from indigenous sources, there would be no increase in imported energy for heating.

The existing building wedge would retrofit buildings to reduce their energy consumption to that of newly constructed buildings and require that any energy demand be met from indigenous sources. If one percent of the building stock could be upgraded each year, by 2020, fifteen percent of the region’s buildings would be upgraded.

Sources of indigenous energy for heating would include wood, solar, geothermal, and wind. In the case of wind, the electricity generated could be stored as heat in Electric Thermal Storage (ETS) units, allowing the buildings to be heated whether or not the wind was blowing.

At present, none of the Atlantic Provinces have programs in place that address the issue of energy security and building heating. There are no short-term solutions to this problem. The longer it takes to enact the legislation to create the necessary wedges, the harder and more costly it will be to ensure the energy security of those living in Atlantic Canada.

Published: Atlantic Construction and Transportation Journal - December 2006