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Thursday, April 25, 2024

When it comes to emissions, sometimes close should count

They say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. But maybe it should also count for something in the industry’s pursuit of zero-emissions transport.

There are some sizeable investments and advances being made in technologies that greatly reduce trucking emissions. But the US EPA, whose rules affect Canadian fleets by virtue of our shared heavy truck market, is committed to stamping out trucking emissions completely. In doing so, it is pushing some incredibly costly zero-emissions solutions that can’t yet be fully supported.

Natural gas is cleaner than diesel, but won’t meet regulators’ requirements for zero-emissions transport solutions. (CNW Group/Tourmaline Oil Corp.)

Battery-electric and fuel-cell-electric trucks are said to be the future, and the most viable ways to achieve decarbonization on the government’s extremely ambitious timelines.

A new report from the Public Policy Forum paints a grim picture of Canada’s readiness to transition to a zero-emissions future driven by electric vehicles. Electricity demand in Canada is forecast to double by 2050, the report claims, and supply capacity will have to expand by 2.2 to 3.4 times today’s volumes to support that need.

In Project of the Century: A blueprint for growing Canada’s clean electricity supply – and fast, the Public Policy Forum notes Canada has “developed a slew of policies designed to shift energy consumption toward electricity, most notably in favor of electric vehicles,” but that the pressing question of “where will all that clean supply come from?” remains unanswered.

The challenge, the report concludes, is not impossible but is daunting. I prefer to consider myself a realist, not a pessimist, but I’ll lean towards impossible. To bring our electricity supply to where it’s needed is comparable to other great undertakings in our country’s past, such as building the Trans-Canada Highway or the St. Lawrence Seaway, the report claims. There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done to build capacity and green the electricity supply, especially considering three provinces and two territories actually “have more emissions in their systems than China and Russia,” the report notes.

“Electricity is the foundation stone of the energy transition,” said Edward Greenspon, president and CEO of the Public Policy Forum, one of the report’s authors. “Canada has to build the equivalent of one or two more of everything developed over the past century if supply is to catch up with the demand we’re already stimulating as well as to achieve our net-zero goals.”

“Electrification is a worthy and necessary nation-building goal. We will need unprecedented policy coherence for Canada to meet the moment,” Greenspon added. Necessary steps, he said, include “facilitating Indigenous ownership, reforming approval processes, accepting the need for transitional fuels, and intelligently sequencing where new electricity supplies should go first, second and third.”

And all this must be done quickly. Such agility has not traditionally been a strong point for our federal and provincial governments. Zero emissions is a lofty and laudable goal, and is achievable in time. But by pushing truly zero-emissions technologies like BEVs and hydrogen fuel cells, we could be missing out on a range of technologies that are more widely available today, more cost-effective, and easier for end users to implement.

Take for example natural gas. Mullen Group is transitioning part of its Western Canadian fleet to compressed natural gas (CNG), and Tourmaline Oil and Clean Energy Fuels are investing $70 million to build fueling stations for those trucks and others. These trucks produce about 20% less C02 emissions than diesels, the companies report, and Mullen plans to double its CNG fleet every couple of years.

But CNG alone won’t meet the zero-emissions targets the government has set out for the industry. Close. But we aren’t playing horseshoes. Other clean technologies are also at risk of falling by the wayside, or being dismissed as a “bridge” to zero-emissions. Direct-injection hydrogen engines, for example, slash emissions by about 99%, but aren’t zero-emissions because they require a small dose of diesel fuel to spark ignition.

You get diesel-like performance at a palatable price point, but the technology currently doesn’t meet North American regulators’ definition of zero. How about hybrid systems that supplement diesel or natural gas power with an electric axle? Again, the emission reductions are substantial – but not zero. How about Hydra Energy’s made-in-Canada dual-fuel retrofits that displace 40% of diesel consumed with hydrogen? Doesn’t make the cut if zero is the end goal.

Wouldn’t it make sense, in the name of progress, to encourage and accept the use of such near-zero solutions at least until the Canadian electrical system is sufficiently built up to support a nationwide fleet of EVs and an expansive hydrogen fueling network is built? If North American regulators don’t offer some flexibility when it comes to pursuing zero-emissions transport, and accept some of the more readily available and easier to implement emissions-slashing technologies, the supply chain could be sitting on a hand grenade when zero-emissions offerings are mandated.

And as we know about hand grenades, close does count.

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