insight & evidence

House Of Commons Committee Consideration Of Bill C-49


By Dr. Peter Nicholson – Opening Statement 5 February 2024

Let me begin by thanking the Committee for providing this forum to address the potential for massive offshore renewable energy development off our Atlantic coast, a scale of opportunity that has been greatly underestimated.

Realization of the opportunity will depend on many factors, but one essential precondition is an appropriate regulatory framework—hence the relevance of Bill C-49.

Catching the Wind - Public Policy Forum - the opportunity to develop Atlantic offshore wind energy at a scale sufficient to contribute significantly to Canada’s clean energy requirement.  

I will briefly summarize some of the content of a paper I wrote—entitled “Catching the Wind”—that was published last October by the Public Policy Forum. The purpose was to outline in some detail the opportunity to develop Atlantic offshore wind energy at a scale sufficient to contribute significantly to Canada’s clean energy requirement.  

I emphasize that we are talking here about a project of national significance, not just a regional project, although there would also be very significant economic benefits for Atlantic Canada.

To date, much of the discussion of Atlantic offshore wind energy has been in the context of “green” hydrogen for export primarily to European markets. While this may be a promising opportunity, in my view, green hydrogen is not the biggest prize.

The first and best use for Atlantic offshore wind would be to supply the national grid—to provide massive amounts of clean energy as far west as Ontario.

The starting premise is Canada’s, and indeed the world’s, commitment to eventually decarbonize the energy system. This will require an enormous expansion of electricity generation and transmission both nationally and globally.

How much? In Canada’s case, we can draw on a detailed scenario published last June by the Canada Energy Regulator (“CER”). The CER projects that to achieve net-zero, Canada will need to double electricity generation. Where will all this new energy come from? According to the CER scenario:[1]

  • About 15% will be from new hydro development
  • Some 25% will come from a tripling of nuclear generation
  • Another 15% would come from a combination of solar, biomass and geothermal, and
  • Almost 50% of new generation would come from a 7-fold increase in wind energy.

In the case of Ontario, electricity generation would more than triple in a net-zero scenario, with almost two-thirds of the growth coming from a 12-fold increase in wind generation.

Where will all this new wind generation come from? A great deal will have to come from a massive build out of terrestrial wind farms across Canada, particularly in the open spaces of the west. But wind facilities on the unprecedented scale required can generate very significant land use conflicts, especially in more heavily populated areas where local resistance has already manifested.

What’s the alternative?

The alternative is to generate massive new energy from the strong and consistent winds blowing off our Atlantic coast.

To illustrate with just one hypothetical example, imagine one or more offshore wind facilities capable of generating a combined 15 gigawatts of electricity—enough to power 6-7 million average Canadian homes.[2] This power could be provided by a thousand 15 megawatt turbines. They would occupy a total area of roughly 3,000 – 4,000 square kilometres of ocean surface. It’s important to recognize that wind turbines at this enormous scale would be separated by more than 1.5 kilometers, thus greatly reducing the impact on marine traffic.[3]

There are many areas off the Atlantic coast that afford excellent siting conditions, including for example the vast Sable Island Bank—though of course not Sable Island itself.[4]

There would be significant direct economic benefit associated with the installation and ongoing operation of such a facility—for example, about 30,000 jobs during multi-year installation of a 15 GW facility and roughly 1,200 permanent jobs associated with maintenance. Fortunately, there is already a base of relevant marine skills in the region. Initially, many of the direct installation jobs would have to be foreign sourced. But with training, Atlantic Canada could eventually become a global centre of expertise in offshore wind.

In addition to the direct job benefit there would be the spin-off activity attracted by an abundant supply of clean, infinitely renewable electricity.

The potential for offshore wind-generated energy vastly exceeds the consumption needs of the Atlantic Provinces, so the scale of the opportunity will depend on export of electricity into Quebec, and particularly Ontario; and possibly to the northeastern States. As the CER net zero scenarios demonstrate, the need will be there.

The challenge will be to mobilize the enormous investment to establish both the wind facilities and the expanded transmission westward from the coast. This will require many tens of billions of dollars spread over many years.[5] We are talking about an investment to secure both our future economic prosperity and a livable planet.

And once the investment is in place, it will ensure an infinitely renewable supply of clean energy insulated from the vagaries of geopolitics and world energy prices.

In conclusion—What I have described here is a national opportunity of genuinely historic proportions. It’s an opportunity to forge a clean renewable energy system that would unite, in complementary fashion, the vast existing hydro resources in Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec with the even vaster resources of Atlantic offshore wind.[6]

Canada urgently needs a regulatory framework equal to that unprecedented opportunity.  

[1] The CER website contains the full set of data underlying the net-zero scenarios broken down by year (through 2050), province, and energy source.

[2] Total electrical generating capacity in Canada is currently about 150 gigawatts, an amount that would need to approximately double to achieve net-zero emissions from Canada’s total energy production and use.

[3] For optimal performance, turbines should be spaced at roughly 7-8 times the rotor diameter. A 15MW turbine has a rotor diameter of about 235 meters which would imply a spacing of 1.6 – 1.9 km.

[4] The Sable Island Bank is more than 100 km off the NS coast and includes an area of approximately 8,000 square km where water depth is less than 60 meters, permitting turbines to be anchored to the ocean floor.

[5] Currently the capital cost of installed offshore turbines is approximately US$3-$4 million per megawatt (i.e., US$3-$4 billion per gigawatt). At this cost, a 15 GW facility would cost about $60-$80 billion (Canadian) before connection to the grid.

[6] The complementarity between offshore wind and hydro resources is due to the fact hydro can be varied, via reservoir control, to smooth the intermittency of wind, in effect serving as a giant “battery”. There are few places on earth where major hydro and wind resources are potentially as well matched as Canada’s east coast.

About the author

Policy Wonks

The Policy Wonks are Dr. Peter Nicholson, Jeff Larsen, and Bernie Miller.

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insight & evidence