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Fun with numbers: Shaking the fossil fuel addiction

Tom Hackney
Monday, February 29, 2016

There has been a lot in the news recently about the need to address climate change and reduce our carbon emissions, in BC, in Canada and around the world.

How easy – or difficult – will it be for us to change to a low carbon energy system? Here are some rough calculations, for perspective:

BC’s annual energy use for homes, businesses, industry and domestic transportation is about 1,100 petajoules (PJ). For scale, this is about 15 million times more than the annual energy consumption of a typical gas-heated home in BC (70 gigajoules (GJ)).

About one fifth of BC’s energy use – 230 PJ – is supplied by electricity (in electrical units, this is about 63,000 GWh). This electricity, whether supplied by BC Hydro, FortisBC or other utilities, is already mostly free from carbon emissions.

The remaining four fifths of BC’s energy use comes mostly from burning fossil fuels: gasoline, diesel and natural gas.

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So, in rough terms, the challenge is to cut out 880 PJ per year of fossil fuel consumption and replace it with electricity generated from the wind, solar and other renewable sources. Zero-carbon fuels will have a role, too, but not large enough to figure in these rough calculations. However, a 

huge part of the solution lies in ‘negawatts’: finding ways to meet our needs with the minimum amounts of energy.

First, let’s see how far we can cut our energy needs, then see what resources there are to meet the remainder.

In transportation, switching to electric vehicles would cut transportation energy needs in half because of the superior efficiency of electric motors over internal combustion engines. Moving away from just-in-time deliveries would reduce the number of trips required. Urban containment and planning for efficiency can reduce distances travelled. Transportation currently consumes 330 PJ annually. These measures should be able to cut needs by 220 PJ.

Homes and other buildings use about 320 PJ of fossil fuel energy per year. Installing efficient space and water heating, sealing air leaks and improving insulation should be able to cut needs in half – more, as zero-energy building standards spread to the whole building stock.

BC industry uses about 450 PJ per year, largely to extract and process materials. There is no one way to save energy, but it is safe to assume that a 20% improvement in efficiency could be achieved with a concerted effort, i.e. a reduction of 90 PJ.

This leaves 400 to 500 PJ per year of energy to be met with renewable resources. BC Hydro’s system currently produces about 220 PJ of power per year. So, electrifying this energy use would roughly triple the size of the electrical system – a significant challenge.

BC Hydro’s Resource Options Report identifies about 250 PJ of wind, hydro, geothermal and other renewable energy resources at a unit cost of under 20¢ per kilowatt hour (compared to the current residential retail rate of around 10¢). Many more shutterstock_127612022.jpgrenewable resources are available, but at higher costs. In other words, with a considerable increase in our electricity prices, we could acquire enough new electricity generation to meet about half of the additional electricity load from shifting away from fossil fuel use.

Where would the other half come from? Other resources, like geothermal may be discovered through exploration of BC’s rich geologically active rocks. Small scale distributed solar photovoltaic energy is becoming cost-competitive with conventional resources and may bring a revolution in energy use.

There are many other factors that are incredibly complex and have been left out of this already complicated analysis. I hope it helps to clarify the size of the issue. We are thankfully at a time where the input of British Columbians can have a direct effect on BC politics. Until March 25th, the BC Government is looking for input on their Climate Leadership Plan, so we urge the public to give their input in any way they can. We have given our list of recommendations for you to use, and we hope that together, unified as BC residents, we can bring about the reduction of BC’s energy usage and reduce our fossil fuel dependency.