Science & Tech

13+ things you didn’t know about energy

Massive oilfields, huge offshore rigs, high-tech refineries, colossal dams, sprawling wind farms — how much do you really know about BIG power in Canada?

  • May 31, 2013
  • 2,842 words
  • 12 minutes
The pumpjack is an iconic symbol of oil in the West. Expand Image

Squeeze a pump and the gas flows. Flick a switch and the room lights up. Turn a dial on the stove and a flame ignites. We’ve come a long way from smashing rocks together to create a spark or from burning whale oil to illuminate the house. In fact, our energy is so convenient that most Canadians know very little about where it comes from and how it gets to us. Sure, there’s still the woodpile behind the shed, but more often than not energy is coaxed from sands sticky with oil and shot through a network of pipes, harnessed by damming massive bodies of water, captured from the sun and wind or even sucked from rotting waste. Canadian Geographic has amassed 13-plus intriguing facts about energy in Canada, so the next time the price at the pump sends you reeling, or a heating bill throws you into a state of shock, at least you’ll know more about Canada’s energy mix and how it works.

Even though Canada is rich in oil, almost half the gas Canadians use comes from overseas

Canada’s oil industry produces about 3.2 million barrels of oil per day, but nearly half of the 1.8 million barrels it takes to power our country’s vehicles comes from overseas. So why does Canada import foreign oil when we produce enough to meet our own needs? For one, there’s no way right now to get oil from Western Canada (where the vast majority of it is found) to Eastern Canada, explains Stephen Rodrigues, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ research managing director. The country’s 43,000-kilometre oil pipeline system currently runs from Edmonton to Vancouver, south to the United States and as far east as Sarnia, Ont. Also, notes Rodrigues, Canada produces a fair amount of heavy crude oil, and the refineries in Eastern Canada only process light crude oil. (Crude oil is raw, unrefined petroleum, and is measured by density, from heavy to light.) As a result, the gas Canadians east of Sarnia fill their tanks with is usually refined from oil imported from Norway’s North Sea, Nigeria and the Middle East.

Energy fact

Crude oil from Canada’s oilsands fetches roughly $20 less than market value per barrel. Why? The heavy crude from the oilsands requires more refining than light crude, and there isn’t enough pipeline capacity to get heavy crude from the oilsands to heavy-crude refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The Nunavut government buys all the gas for the territory once a year

Nunavut is the only place in Canada that purchases all its gasoline, diesel and jet fuel in one bulk shipment. Each May, the territory’s government makes the buy when refineries in Alberta are winding down their winter-grade gasoline production (winter-grade gas is used year-round in Nunavut). Buying then ensures that fuel prices are low. “Nunavut has been able to maintain the price of gasoline and home heating fuel for residents through our Early Fuel Purchasing Program,” says Hillary Casey, policy analyst and communications officer for Nunavut’s Department of Community and Government Services. “As a result of this early purchase, home heating fuel and gasoline prices have not increased since 2009.” The 210-million-litre shipment is delivered by marine tanker to all 27 Nunavut communities when sea ice melts in the summer, and the government sets fuel prices for the entire year.

Energy fact

All of Nunavut’s electricity is produced from diesel-powered generators.

Offshore oil is big business these days in Newfoundland and Labrador

Three hundred kilometres from St. John’s in the frigid Atlantic Ocean, monolithic oil platforms account for 10 per cent of all crude oil produced in Canada. Three major offshore oil operations — Hibernia (Canada’s largest, pictured right), Terra Nova and White Rose — produce about 270,000 barrels of oil per day, enough to fill more than 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Since 2005, all three have pumped a total of 1.14 billion barrels of oil up from below the ocean floor. Most of this oil is exported to the United States and other foreign markets. The Newfoundland and Labrador government has generated about $5.5 billion in royalties since 2008 from these operations, and the industry has employed nearly 3,000 people since 2009. Last year, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board approved a major new offshore project called Hebron, located in the middle of the existing platforms, with reserves of about 400 million to 700 million barrels of recoverable oil.

Energy fact

The Hibernia offshore oil platform is designed to withstand the impact of a one-million-tonne iceberg with no damage.

Inuvik sits on a wealth of natural gas, but the city can’t use it

Inuvik, N.W.T., about 1,200 kilometres north of Whitehorse, has relied on one small local natural gas reserve for about 90 per cent of its heating and electricity needs for years. But the well has nearly run dry. So why not just tap the billions of cubic metres of natural gas below the surface of town in three other separate reserves? In the 1990s, Inuvik was to be the staging ground for Canada’s first attempts at developing the massive natural gas fields in the Arctic. The project relied on the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline to transport the energy south, but it was put on hold in 2012 because of the increasingly low market price of natural gas, the high costs of construction and environmental concerns. So, Inuvik has started using diesel fuel to generate electricity, as well as synthetic natural gas (created by mixing vaporized propane with air) for home heating.

Energy fact

The propane used to create the synthetic natural gas that now heats homes in Inuvik is trucked in from Alberta.

Saint John is home to a critical part of Canada’s natural gas network

Canaport in Saint John, N.B., is Canada’s only liquefied natural gas terminal and regasification plant. Here, the easier-to-transport liquid form of natural gas imported from Qatar and from Trinidad and Tobago is pumped from ships into storage tanks. LNG moves from the storage tanks into the plant, where it’s heated and converted back into gas form. The facility has the capacity to send out nearly 34 million cubic metres of natural gas each day — enough to heat almost five million homes for a day. The converted gas is then pumped into the Brunswick or Northeast pipelines, which supply natural gas to a portion of the Maritimes and 20 per cent of the northeastern United States.

Energy fact

The Irving Oil refinery in Saint John is Canada’s largest, producing more than 300,000 barrels of petroleum products per day.

Kitimat is poised to become one of the nation’s energy hot spots

A slew of new energy projects in Kitimat, B.C., about 1,400 kilometres north of Vancouver, aimed at delivering Canadian oil and liquefied natural gas to Asian markets, have the potential to generate billions of dollars. The Conference Board of Canada predicts British Columbia’s natural gas industry alone could generate $181 billion in investment by 2035, with correspondingly huge returns for the economy. Oil and gas companies Apache and Chevron received the National Energy Board’s approval in October 2011 for a licence to export LNG from a $4.5-billion Kitimat LNG project. Natural gas from British Columbia and Alberta will be transported to the future facility via the Pacific Trail Pipeline. The facility will process the natural gas into LNG, which will then be shipped to Asia and other markets. Once running, Kitimat LNG could process up to 10 million tonnes of LNG annually, enough to heat nearly five million homes for a year.

Energy fact

Canada’s nearly 75,000-kilometre network of natural gas pipelines is long enough to circle the Earth almost twice.

Coal is still a major source of the nation’s electricity

In 2010, 67.9 million tonnes of coal were hauled out of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, more than half of which was thermal coal, the kind used to generate electricity (the rest was metallurgical coal, used to create steel). Coal plants, which create energy by burning the rock, generated more than half of the electricity used in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia in 2009, and between 10 and 20 per cent of electricity in New Brunswick and Ontario. But they also emit more than twice the amount of greenhouse gas that an equivalent-sized natural gas plant does. Partly to combat Canada’s climbing greenhouse gas emissions, the Ontario government has started the process of phasing out all coal-powered plants, and will be coal-free by the end of this year.

Energy fact

Ontario Power Generation says the two coal plants it recently retired (in Atikokan and Thunder Bay) will be used to generate electricity from biomass and natural gas in the future.

Water is a dominant source of electricity in Canada

With Canada’s abundant supply of water, it’s hardly surprising that hydro power dominates our nation’s electrical grid. Hydro accounts for more than 60 per cent of Canada’s electricity generation, and it’s been that way for more than a century. “Trying to get people excited about hydro power can be like advertising oatmeal,” says Jacob Irving, president of the Canadian Hydropower Association. “Because it is so well developed and it’s been around for so long, it sometimes fades into the background.” Canada is now the globe’s third largest producer of hydro power, with three provinces (Quebec, British Columbia and Manitoba) drawing more than 90 per cent of their electricity from water. And Canada still hasn’t reached its full potential. In Quebec, for instance, the current hydro power infrastructure has the potential to double capacity, adding about 44,000 megawatts to the grid (enough electricity to power as many as 40 million homes for a year).

Energy fact

Canada boasts the world’s first modern tidal generating station, the Annapolis Tidal Station in Annapolis Royal, N.S.

Nuclear power is a small but key part of the country’s energy mix

Ontario generated more than 55 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power in 2009, while the energy source accounts for about 15 per cent of Canada’s total electricity production. All this energy surges from four nuclear plants; three in Ontario and one in New Brunswick. All of Canada’s nuclear reactors, known as CANDU, use natural uranium (through an innovative Canadian system) instead of processed uranium, allowing for a faster, more efficient process. But these reactors are aging. Each has about a 30-year lifespan, then must be refurbished — at a cost of between $1 billion and $6 billion — to add another 25 to 30 years of life. In Ontario, all 10 reactors at the Bruce and Darlington plants need to be upgraded by 2024. In total, the Ontario government will have to spend about $40 billion before then to keep them running.

Energy fact

Ontario’s Pickering 7 reactor holds the world record for the longest non-stop operation of a nuclear reactor — 894 days.

There’s an emerging industry to turn trash into energy treasure

The Canadian bioenergy industry is using just about anything organic to create energy. Waste streams such as household garbage, agricultural by-products, aquaculture leftovers and remnants from the forest-products industry can all be used to create bioenergy. Across the country, many electricity-generating plants powered by fossil fuels are starting to use more biomass to decrease their dependence on non-renewable energy sources and reduce emissions. But the best use of biomass, says Christopher Rees, vice-chair of the Canadian Bioenergy Association, is as a heat source. “I don’t think we’ll see a lot of residential use of biomass in the near future,” he says. “What we’re going to see is more use of biomass for heat in public buildings, and also in communities as district heating.”

Energy fact

Oujé-Bougoumou, Quebec, was one of the first communities in Canada to use a district-heating model, where heat is produced in one central boiler, then sent via hot water to residents.

Solar power could be the key to grass-roots energy production

Solar power makes up less than one per cent of Canada’s energy supply. Most solar projects are small, and provide electricity to a single dwelling or a handful of buildings. To help foster small-scale energy production, such as solar power, British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia have opened up their grids to citizens and businesses. Both can install solar panels on their property and sell the power they generate back to the provincial utility through feed-in tariff (FIT) programs. Ann and Gord Baird, founders of British Columbia’s EcoSense, a smart energy-use consulting company, use solar energy to power their home and participate in BC Hydro’s net-metering program. “Our electricity meter runs both ways,” Ann says. “In the summer, we actually produce a lot more solar electricity than we consume, so we sell the extra back to BC Hydro. In the winter, when there isn’t as much sunlight, we buy some back.”

Energy fact

Canada’s largest solar farm is in Sarnia, Ont., and can produce 80 megawatts, enough electricity for about 10,000 homes.

Canada’s wind-energy capacity is quickly blowing up (in a good way)

Ten years ago, Canada could generate a little more than 300 megawatts of wind energy (enough to power about 195,000 homes). Today, Canada can produce up to 6,500 megawatts. In another five years, wind-energy production is estimated to be more than 12,000 megawatts. Wind is the fastest-growing energy source in the world. Robert Hornung, the Canadian Wind Energy Association’s president, attributes this growth to the global push to reduce emissions and rely more on renewable energy, and the decreasing cost of infrastructure. A decade ago, wind energy was far more expensive to install than any other energy source. Now, the cost of producing wind power is competitive with many other energy sources, except for coal, natural gas and some large hydro-power projects.

Energy fact

Canada’s installed wind-generating capacity currently ranks ninth in the world.

High costs hamper the country’s use of geothermal energy

Canada is the only major country on the Pacific Rim that doesn’t harness significant amounts of geothermal energy, heat drawn from deep holes in the ground. Although major projects in British Columbia and the Yukon have been investigated, nothing has come to fruition. “One of the reasons has been the low price of large hydroelectricity projects for utility companies, so nothing could compete with that,” says Mory Ghomshei, a professor of mining engineering at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia. Another major factor, says Ghomshei, who as a freelance consultant has been involved in the research of almost all proposed geothermal wells in Canada since the early 1980s, is the high initial costs to confirm the resource exists. Once it’s found, however, a geothermal well can produce several hundred megawatts per year (enough electricity to power more than 100,000 homes).

Energy fact

In 2009, more than 15,000 geothermal heat pumps were installed in homes and businesses across the country.

Clearly, myriad energy resources form the integral system powering the nation. There are challenges: Canadians east of Sarnia can’t use the West’s oil; Inuvik, sitting on huge natural gas reserves, has to import another fuel for energy; and electricity can’t usually be shared from province to province, for instance. Conversely, there are huge opportunities: the economic potential of liquefied natural gas exports from Kitimat, B.C.; the seemingly endless supply of hydro power; the country’s vast array of emerging renewable energy resources. Understanding this complex web is critical to engaging with today’s important energy issues — and to Canada’s future.

Fast facts about energy in Canada

  • Canada is the world’s fifth largest energy producer.
  • From 2008 to 2035, the world’s demand for energy is estimated to increase by 47 per cent.
  • One of the world’s first oil pipelines was built in Ontario in 1862, connecting the Petrolia oilfield to Sarnia, Ont.
  • The largest commodity carried by Canada’s railways is coal.
  • Canadian coal is exported to 21 countries on five continents.
  • Canada has the third largest crude oil reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
  • Canada is the third largest producer of hydroelectricity in the world, after China and Brazil.
  • Canada is one of the largest producers of uranium, supplying more than 20 per cent of the world’s demand in 2010.
  • Just three provinces in Canada produce electricity using nuclear energy: Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.
  • More than 40 per cent of all energy produced in Canada is used for heating.

Sources: Centre for Energy, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, CIA World Factbook, Natural Resources Canada

School tools: Energy in the classroom

Students and teachers can explore Canada’s energy production and transmission on a giant floor map that measures about 11-by-8 metres. The map comes complete with an activity trunk and curriculum-linked learning activities. To request a giant floor map, visit

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