The pathway to a clean energy future is often defined by targets to reduce energy demand, increase the supply and use of renewable energy, and phase out fossil fuels.
These goals are right and necessary. But achieving them should not come at the expense of energy reliability, grid resilience, consumer choice and affordability – the key ingredients of a smart energy evolution.
“We need to get the pace of energy transition right,” says Michele Harradence, president of Enbridge Gas. “Too slow of a pace means we won’t meet our decarbonization goals, but moving too quickly could have significant impacts on our standard of living and on the most vulnerable people in our society.”
In Ontario – where close to four million homes and businesses count on natural gas to power their lives and operations, and where strong economic and population growth continue to drive up energy demand – the most effective approach is one that is also pragmatic and realistic: a combination of “pipes and wires.”
“This collaborative solution combines electricity and gas systems and implements innovative technologies designed to reduce or capture carbon emissions,” explains Malini Giridhar, vice-president, business development and regulatory affairs at Enbridge, which delivers natural gas to about 75 per cent of Ontario consumers, through an extensive pipeline structure stretching out to almost 154,000 kilometres. “The result is optimized energy reliability, more choice and reduced costs for customers, and greater resiliency to extreme weather events – all while achieving the same net-zero goals.”
Giridhar’s observations are supported by an Enbridge-sponsored analysis by the consultancy firm Guidehouse, which compared deep electrification against a diversified approach that includes end-use electrification in balance with low- and zero-carbon gases and natural gas paired with carbon capture.
Compared to the electrification pathway, the diversified option was projected to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 while providing greater reliability and resilience at a lower cost for consumers, by reducing new electricity transmission requirements for peak demand.
The study also found that the pipes and wires approach would reduce the cost of replacing home heating systems while offering consumers more heating options, including hybrid heating that uses electricity and gas.
“We wanted to understand the overall feasibility of each approach, based on costs, GHG emission reductions, system reliability and resiliency,” says Ms. Giridhar. “With a pipes and wires approach, Ontario can continue to enjoy the advantages of a reliable and affordable energy source delivered through almost 154,000 kilometres of underground pipelines that are shielded from the effects of weather.”
A big challenge with deep electrification is the inadequate capacity of today’s electricity systems to meet peak power requirements and the intermittent or limited availability of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.
Thanks to ongoing investments in clean energy technology, Enbridge has the ability to supply increasing amounts of sustainable energy at a lower cost. This includes renewable natural gas – which captures energy from organic matter, ranging from agricultural sources to sewage, that would otherwise continue to emit methane gas as they decay – as well as hydrogen.
In addition to funding innovations and expansions in sustainable energy, Enbridge invests more than $2-billion in Ontario each year to maintain and operate its pipelines, supporting businesses and workers in industries such as steel and equipment leasing.
“Enbridge is the first utility in North America to blend hydrogen, a zero-emission fuel, in our natural gas pipelines,” says Ms. Giridhar. “We’re providing that blend to 3,600 customers and looking to expand that delivery across our system. We’re also looking to provide hydrogen to certain customers through dedicated hydrogen pipelines.”
This diversified approach also supports industrial sectors and applications such as long-haul transportation that depend on natural gas to provide the affordable energy intensity that electrification can’t today, as the markets for alternatives like hydrogen and carbon capture develop.
“Essential to a practical net-zero transition is the realization that the continued use of natural gas must be combined with investment in carbon capture and sequestration,” says Ms. Giridhar. “Enbridge is currently working on a carbon sequestration project in Alberta and there’s every indication that the geology in southwestern Ontario is also suitable for carbon sequestration.”
A recent policy paper released by the C.D. Howe Institute underscores the importance of carbon capture technology in meeting net-zero targets, stating that “Canada will need to increase annual rates of CO2 captured and stored permanently by between 12 and 16 times from 2021 levels to hit net-zero 2050 target.”
At the consumer level, a diversified approach will also lead to greater choice and more affordable home energy bills. Heat pumps could be paired with furnaces and boilers allowing customers to use electricity when the grid is offering energy to spare and switching to natural gas/hydrogen when it’s under strain.
“New technology continues to change the way that energy is produced and delivered in ways that are unpredictable,” says Ms. Giridhar. “A pipes and wires approach will give Ontario the freedom to incorporate 30 years of new technology in a way that benefits people and businesses without putting all its energy eggs in one basket.”