Lost in Transmission?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the magnitude of the challenge we face in scaling up clean electricity generation and transmission to achieve net zero. Generation gets a lot of attention but without transmission to get clean electrons to all the things we need to electrify, we’re stuck.

So it was great to see Bill Gates put a spotlight on transmission, and distill the opportunity/challenge to its essence: “If you care about climate change, you should care about transmission.”

BC offers an interesting case study.

Giga Metals is a Vancouver-based mining company focused on metals critical to the batteries needed for electric vehicles and energy storage. The company is advancing the Turnagain Nickel-Cobalt Project, which is located 65 km east of Dease Lake, and has the potential to produce 33,000 tonnes of battery grade nickel annually over 35 years. The project caught the eye of Mitsubishi, which took a stake in the project last summer.

The aim for the project is for it to be a world-class leader in low-carbon nickel production via a number of strategies, not the least of which is using clean electricity to power shovels, drills and (when possible) the mine fleet. (As an off-topic but interesting aside, it also includes a novel opportunity for CO2 sequestration through mineral carbonation, working with UBC’s Greg Dipple, who has created Arca, a company that proposes to use waste from critical metal mines to capture and store CO2 permanently by speeding up the natural process of carbon mineralization).

If the mining operation is going to be largely electrified, it needs access to BC Hydro’s clean power, which requires an approximately 160 kilometer extension of the existing 287 kV Northwest Transmission Line to the project site. The alternative? An LNG-fuelled power plant that would be more expensive and polluting.


Simple, right? Wrong.

Last week the challenge of aligning new transmission with industrial demand was thrust into the spotlight when LNG Canada declared that it will have to burn gas to power its Phase 2 compressors (if in fact, it proceeds) because it won’t have access to sufficient power to electrify. While subsequent coverage leads me to believe this claim may just be a thinly veiled ploy to get taxpayers and/or ratepayers to shoulder the cost of transmission (rather than actually being about timing), it did precipitate a clear acknowledgment from BC Hydro that it faces a “chicken and egg” dilemma: “There is a potentially big demand for clean power from industry. Industries can’t commit to electrification without adequate transmission, and BC Hydro can’t commit to building new transmission without big industrial customers making final investment decisions.”

When the alternative to plugging into clean power is burning fossil fuels, this has material implications for both achieving BC’s legislated climate targets and competing for investment dollars that increasingly consider the carbon intensity of potential investments.

Timeliness is critical. So is certainty. And so while BC Hydro is, to their credit, trying a new approach to overcome the “chicken and egg” challenge, they’re going to need some help.

That’s where BC’s new Minister of Energy, Mines & Low Carbon Innovation, Josie Osborne, comes in. She has some key deliverables in her mandate letter that could prove critical. Amongst other things, she has been asked to:

  • Develop and implement a climate-aligned energy framework for B.C. with an overall goal of maximizing our province’s production of clean energy to use at home and for export.
  • Improve timing and transparency of permitting processes to support sustainable economic development while maintaining high levels of environmental protection, aligned with cross-government work on permitting led by the Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship.
  • Work with BC Hydro to implement its Electrification Plan and to ensure the province is well positioned to electrify B.C.’s economy and industry, including options for Indigenous ownership and/or equity interest in BC Hydro infrastructure and Indigenous partnership in clean energy projects.
  • Work with the BC Utilities Commission to identify an appropriate role for the Commission in supporting B.C.’s clean energy transition, in alignment with our province’s climate goals to achieve net zero by 2050 and affordability objectives.
  • Support B.C.’s mining sector by launching the Mining Innovation Hub and expedite a provincial critical minerals strategy that positions British Columbia to take advantage of the emerging clean global economy.

If Minister Osborne can make progress on these tasks, while ensuring they remain aligned with the DRIPA and its associated Action Plan, BC will be in a unique and remarkably competitive position to align its economy and energy system with net zero.

It’s not a small “to-do” list but it is a “must do” list: unless and until we figure out how to navigate these challenges our electrification ambitions risk being lost in transmission.

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