Nova Scotia·Q&A

80 per cent renewable by 2030 could be a challenge, expert says

Premier Tim Houston has pledged to get Nova Scotia to 80 per cent renewable energy by 2030, but in a province that relies heavily on coal, how do we get there? Expert Grant Wach explains some of the changes the province could implement to reach its goals.

Grant Wach says 8 years may not be enough time and there's a lot of work to be done

The West Pubnico Point Wind Farm is seen in Lower West Pubnico, N.S., on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. In countries around the world, people have been requesting wind farms be moved offshore, which expert Grant Wach says would work well in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Premier Tim Houston has pledged to get Nova Scotia to 80 per cent renewable energy by 2030, but in a province that relies heavily on coal, how do we get there?

The Progressive Conservative government also wants at least 30 per cent of cars to be zero emission by 2030, with the province partially funding the installation of electric vehicle charging stations. All new provincial buildings would be net zero.

Tim Halman, the member of the legislature for Dartmouth East, was sworn in Tuesday as the province's new environment minister.

Grant Wach is the director of Dalhousie University's Basin and Reservoir Lab, where he studies sustainable energy and is an expert adviser to the U.N.'s energy sustainability committee. 

He spoke Tuesday with CBC Radio Information Morning host Portia Clark to shed some light on possible solutions to the new PC government's environmental goals.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How feasible is it for Nova Scotia to get 80 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by this goal date of 2030? 

It's going to be a challenge for Nova Scotia.

And as it is going to be for all regions of the world, sustainable prosperity is one of the key parts of the strategic plan.

We're going to need to be able to have some greater opportunities to develop more resources and particularly energy storage to be able to smooth out the peaks and troughs that you did with renewable energy, such as wind. 

So we need more wind farms, do we? And then ways to store the excess power that it generates. Is that what you're saying, Grant? 

One of the concerns with renewables is, we've all seen the wind blows and then it stops blowing. For solar, the sun goes away, it gets dark. The nights are longer in the winter.

So how are we going to use renewables to help smooth out the peaks in the energy that we have, for example, here in the mornings or in the evening? Those are the peak energy demands.

If you can supply energy from renewable resources such as wind, and the offshore would be a great area because there's a lot of resistance to building giant wind turbines the size of the power chimney stacks over in Dartmouth. 

That [offshore] would be a start. And the best winds we have actually are in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that are much more steady, some of the best wind resources literally in Canada, if not the world.

We have a lot of storage capacity in the salt that's throughout west of Cape Breton and throughout the Maritimes. And that would be a good place to store excess energy, working with or within Mi'kma'ki and with Indigenous partners.

We need to look at geothermal, too.

We don't have volcanoes, of course, in Nova Scotia, but we have opportunities for low temperature that we can start to produce some heating and cooling.

For example, we heat and cool some of the historic properties from Halifax harbour.

The wind farms that might go in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is there a knock-on environmental impact of that? And what would that actually look like if it was generating a huge amount of power for our province? 

That's another thing that the plan needs to set up. 

As an example, a city of 100,000 people requires 600,000 megawatts a year. What we need to do is look at Ireland, look at the U.K., look at the Netherlands, where more wind farms are going offshore because people don't want those within sight of their homes.

The other issue we really need to do is modification of our electrical grid because right now, all the main electrical grid and service and infrastructure comes from the thermal generation plants, the coal generation plants.

So unless we can get the wind from turbines, et cetera, then that's going to be a problem.

We need to start to look at storing our CO2 and getting that out.

One thing might be a Maritime carbon trunk line modelled much like the Alberta carbon trunk line. 

So storing it [energy], how would we develop the capacity? You mentioned some sort of salt cavern to store energy until we need to use it for those so-called rainy days. 

We've been using salt caverns since the 1940s for generating brine and salt, that's still one brand people recognize. This is a technology that's been in use in Germany for well over 40 years and also down on the Gulf Coast.

Essentially, you compress air and eject the air into the salt domes in off-peak times. Then when you need the power station, you bring it back up and turn turbines that generates power, which generates electricity, and that produces the green, sustainable, renewable energy that we'll require to meet our targets. 

And are these built above ground or where? 

The storage areas are in the already existing areas and those subsurface salt, which are onshore and offshore in the Maritimes, and then the turbines would likely be onshore and above ground. There's also battery technology, too, but there's going to be problems, supply and demand of cobalt and lithium we need.

One of the platforms of the strategic plan is also including greater access to electrical vehicles. That's going to be another opportunity, too. But there is a shortage of what the U.N. calls "critical raw materials," such as cobalt and lithium in their future scenarios that they've mapped out. 

You mentioned electric vehicles. That's going to be another drain on the system, even as it helps correct our use of fossil fuels. Is there an expectation that we will have to curb our behaviour in some way, even as we start using some of the new technology that uses electricity? 

Well, very much so, and I think it's going to be a bit of a shock to folks. There needs to be greater incentives for people to convert to low-carbon alternatives. But right now, the carbon tax is pegged to $30 a tonne, and then that's going to go up to $170 a tonne.

We need to see in the roadmap that's been supplied by the government and also those federal elections ... how was that carbon tax going to be redistributed to the people? What are we going to do to make sure we see investment in the green economy? As people have talked about, it's a transition to 2030 and eventually to 2050. How are we going to meet those targets? It has to be a just transition.

That was really discussed by Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland. The president of Iceland has talked about the biggest challenge we'll be facing in the future is heating and cooling our cities, and that's exactly true.

We really need to solve these problems and move forward. At least, I'm really encouraged that people are talking about the issues we're facing. 

With files from Information Morning