MOST Manitobans believe our province is currently awash in surplus electricity because Manitoba Hydro regularly exports about one-third of its electricity to other provinces and U.S. states.

However, about 75 per cent of that export power is not contracted for long-term use, but is what’s called "wheeling power" — power that’s not needed to fulfil current needs, and can’t be counted on under all circumstances, such as a drought year. It is sold very cheaply, often for less than three cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), or about one-third of what we consumers pay.

However, our green hydro represents only about 24 per cent of our total energy use. The Canada Energy Regulator shows that In 2018, nearly three-quarters of all the energy used in Manitoba came from burning fossil fuels. Burning methane (natural gas) to keep our buildings warm accounts for 28 per cent; most of the remaining 43 per cent comes from using "refined petroleum products," which in simpler language means gasoline and diesel fuels for transportation. A small four per cent comes from biofuels such as methanol.

Climate scientists have been telling us for ages that we must shift away from fossil fuels to more sustainable sources of energy. What has changed in recent years is the urgency of those science-based warnings and the tight timelines now attached to them. According to the United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global emissions must be cut in half from 2010 levels by 2030 and achieve "net zero" by 2050. Suffice to say, none of Winnipeg, Man., Canada or the world is anywhere close to meeting those targets.

The technology to support a massive switch to a low-carbon economy already exists. We can economically heat and cool all our buildings without using fossil fuels, if they are properly insulated. Auto manufacturers all over the world are racing to switch their products to electricity-based platforms. The slow adoption in these areas has far more to do with a lack of political will and the absence of proper financing tools to make these technologies more accessible and affordable to Manitoba households and businesses.

Surprisingly then, the real questions are how much additional electricity do we need to replace fossil fuels, and where is that electricity going to come from?

Manitoba Hydro has already begun examining this issue. Included in its 2018 Electricity Load Forecast (Appendix 15, page 68) is an estimate that completely switching all buildings and vehicles to electricity will require 8,500 megawatts (MW) of additional peak capacity and 28,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) of additional annual energy production.

Sadly, though, this is where the load forecast stops in its tracks. If Manitoba Hydro were a car-maker, this "forecast" would lead to a long-term, carefully calibrated plan to meet the need for new power to drive the conversion to electric vehicles and efficient buildings so desperately needed for our children’s and grandchildren’s world.

Hydro’s reaction to Coun. Brian Mayes’ proposal for the city to research the opportunities to increase the use of non-carbon-based fuels is clear evidence of how Hydro is stuck. A far wiser approach would have been to applaud the city and offer to assist in crafting a sound, long-term policy framework to achieve its goals.

Hydro should be at the forefront of showing that the climate challenge actually creates incredibly lucrative opportunities for Manitobans and our economy. We can save money, create jobs and strengthen the provincial economy by reducing the billions that leak out each year paying for fossil fuel imports. Clearly, however, this change won’t happen overnight. It will be incremental, requiring gradual increases in power supply as time passes.

Historically, Manitoba Hydro has always turned to massive hydro-electric projects to meet future demand. The problem is that these strategies cannot adjust incrementally as new policies drive changes in heating and motive fuel use. They take at least a decade to build, usually far exceed their estimated costs and provide big "lumps" of power when what is needed is incremental growth. Worse, these new dams are far more costly than other options.

Additional sources of low-cost, low-carbon electricity can and should come from myriad sources, creating good jobs in every region of our province and offering improved climate resilience to our grid. Energy efficiency is almost always the cheapest option. Switching and properly insulating a building from electric to geothermal heat will cut its electricity use roughly in half while producing considerable savings for the owner as well.

Solar panels, at two to three cents per kWh, are now cheaper to purchase than they were during Manitoba Hydro’s enormously popular solar subsidy program. At just over 200 MW, we have also barely touched the available wind resource in our province. Innovative Manitobans are already using biomass energy in a wide range of settings.

We need Manitoba Hydro to become a champion for change in how we respond to the climate and attendant new energy demands. Instead of "There’s not enough electricity to fully power the massive change that is coming," we need a Crown corporation that says, "We can manage this, if we work together, embracing both our amazing hydro resources, as well as all the new energy sources and systems that are already on our doorstep."

We can do this, and we must.

Tim Sale was a cabinet minister in the provincial government of premier Gary Doer. Prior to that, he was a consultant to federal and provincial governments on fiscal and education matters.