Go electric, BC? Hang on a minute. . . .

Our Margareta Dovgal on B.C. climate policies, and their implications.


In the midst of a memorable polar cold snap in January, British Columbia faced a stark reality that should serve as a valuable lesson for climate activists and policymakers alike. As Stewart Muir, the founder of our organization, aptly pointed out at the time, "When it's cold like now, BC gets two thirds of its energy for heating, etc., from natural gas. Promises to ditch the fuel by 2030, 2035, 2050, are political theatre to be taken with a large scoop of road salt."

The deep freeze eventually thawed, but it left behind a lingering question about the feasibility of ambitious climate policies in a province heavily reliant on natural gas for its energy needs. The provincial government responded with a proposal to ban conventional gas equipment in new residential, commercial, and institutional buildings by 2030. This move would not only prohibit the sale and installation of gas water heaters but also impose restrictions on new gas furnaces and boilers, permitting them only as part of a hybrid dual-fuel system that integrates electric or gas heat pumps with conventional gas combustion appliances.

While the government embarked on consultations with natural gas contractors, First Nations, and other stakeholders, the public sentiment was reflected in a Castanet news service poll in the Okanagan region. The poll asked, "Should BC ban the use of conventional natural gas for home heating as of 2030?" The results were strikingly clear:

  • No: 12,460 (91%)
  • Yes: 725 (5.3%)
  • Unsure: 501 (3.7%)

However, the proposal to shift away from natural gas raised concerns about BC's electricity infrastructure. During the cold snap, the province had to import 15% of its electricity, and when Alberta faced even colder temperatures, BC had to step in and send power across the border. Contractors like Al Russell of Prince George questioned the province's ability to meet increased electricity demands, especially with the limitations of existing infrastructure.

Russell pointed out the need for significant upgrades to the electricity grid, including more and larger transmission lines and transformers. The pressing question remained: "Where are we getting this power from and how are we getting it there? When does this expansion start, and how much will it cost?"

These concerns are not unique to BC. A recent report from the Public Policy Forum emphasized that to achieve its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, Canada must invest heavily in expanding its electricity generation capacity. This ambitious undertaking comes with a potentially significant cost, with the report envisioning a landscape filled with new dams, turbines, nuclear plants, and solar panels.

Even though BC's BC Hydro once maintained that no additional power generation was needed, the province now anticipates a shift from a surplus to a deficit of power by 2030, even with the Site C power dam set to be operational by 2025. Consequently, BC Hydro plans to seek new clean and renewable energy sources through a competitive process, inviting power providers to contribute to the province's energy needs.

Premier David Eby has also announced a significant update to Hydro's 10-year capital plan, earmarking nearly $36 billion for community and regional infrastructure projects by 2034. However, building new transmission lines in the past has proven to be a lengthy process, taking anywhere from eight to ten years. Eby himself acknowledged that such delays were unacceptable.

Chair of the Energy Futures Initiative, Barry Penner, highlighted the findings of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which forecasted increased energy risks for BC in 2026 due to rising demand and the retirement of natural-gas-fired generation.

All these developments transpire as BC advances its CleanBC policy and program. Yet, the BC Business Council voiced concerns about the economic implications, stating that the provincial government's policies could potentially shrink BC's economy by $28 billion by 2030, setting prosperity back more than a decade.

The cold snap served as a reminder that the impact of these policies goes beyond mere comfort or convenience. In northern climates like BC's, extreme cold can pose significant hazards to human health, wellness, and survivability. It also underscores the importance of stable and secure infrastructure, especially with the risk of water pipes bursting during freezing temperatures.

As BC strives to replace some natural gas services with electricity, affordability becomes a pressing concern. There are three key aspects to consider:

  1. Capital and Operating Costs: Transitioning to electricity comes with increased costs compared to running natural gas systems.
  2. Heat Pump Installation: Installing heat pumps adds to the financial burden.
  3. Housing and Rent Costs: The ripple effect of increased costs may result in higher housing and rent expenses, exacerbating affordability challenges in the region.

An editorial from The Orca labeled BC's natural gas plan as 'all hot air,' expressing concerns about making new homes more expensive to build and live in, especially during a housing crisis.

The climate policies in BC carry significant implications, not only for the affordability of living in the province but also for its economic growth and stability. These policies have the potential to impact the types of jobs available, their associated wages, and the province's global competitiveness.

The net outcome of these policies could determine the fate of industries deeply rooted in BC's history. If these industries can no longer thrive due to regulatory changes, it may have far-reaching consequences for the well-being of the province's residents.

As BC navigates this complex landscape, there is an opportunity for the provincial government to engage with and consider the concerns of the public. With an election year on the horizon, the public should continue to ask questions, seek clarity, and actively participate in shaping the future of their province.

Margareta Dovgal is Managing Director of Resource Works. Based in Vancouver, she holds a Master of Public Administration in Energy, Technology and Climate Policy from University College London. Beyond her regular advocacy on natural resources, environment, and economic policy, Margareta also leads our annual Indigenous Partnerships Success Showcase. She can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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