We all use Energy. Here's how.

All people, everywhere, use energy. The sources, and the way those sources are harvested, developed and applied, range drastically. From the use of biomass like wood to light fires in Africa, to the use of natural gas to run stoves in Canada, and all manner of other energy uses in between, energy is an integral component of our daily lives.

The relationship between population and energy use.
Canadians marking Earth Day on Parliament Hill on April 22, 1990. More than any other factor, the way we use energy determines our individual impact upon the planet's well-being.

Humans may use energy for cooking, for travel, or to power electronic devices. They may use it sparingly, or wastefully, consciously, or blissfully unaware of where it comes from. Where it comes from has been of great consequence in recent times, as our most important energy sources — crude oil, natural gas and coal — are finite. They will not last forever. And while they are in supply, their use contributes to global warming and a host of other impacts discussed on this website.

Where do BC and Canada stand in this dilemma? Where do they get their energy, and how do they use it? Let's first discuss Canada's energy system, from cradle to grave, and follow with a look at British Columbia.


Population and energy demand are inextricably linked. Generally speaking, as one increases, so too does the other.

In Canada, energy demand has been been on the rise for decades. Part of the demand is the result of a rapidly growing population, and part an enhanced craving for its consumption.

Canada's historical population growth is marked by several distinct periods. Between 1851 and 1900, the country's population gradually grew by several million. High fertility was balanced by high mortality levels, which prevented a massive spike in numbers. The population continued to grow slowly but steadily in the first half of the 20th century. Then, in the latter half of the 20th century, the combined effects of the baby-boom and strong immigration caused a surge in population and the demographic transition gained speed in Canada. Between 1946 and 2006, Canada's population expanded from 12.3 million to 32.6 million.

And while Canada's population may have stabilized since then, it continues to grow at a rate of 1% per year (on par with the US, but considerably higher than other developed countries), mostly owing to immigration. It is predicted that Canada could be a country of 42.5 million inhabitants by 2056.

A 2006 report by Natural resources Canada put projected population growth at 0.7% annually, and energy demand at a greater growth rate of 1.3%. Herein enters the second driver of a rising energy demand: a growing appetite for energy.

A break-down of energy use in Canada

The relationship between population and energy use.
From the Natural Resources Canada report "Energy Efficiency Trends in Canada 1990-2008".

Energy use can be simplified into two general types: primary and secondary. Primary energy use refers to the total requirements for all users of energy, inclusive of the energy required to convert one form of energy to another, and to transport those energy supplies to the consumer. Further, it includes the energy employed in industrial production processes. Primary energy use encompasses secondary energy use, which is defined as "the energy used by final consumers in various sectors of the economy." This could be energy used by vehicles in the transportation sector, or energy used to heat and cool buildings in the residential, commercial, or industrial sectors. In 2008, Natural Resources Canada reported that nearly 70% of primary, or total energy use, was from secondary energy applications.

Residential Energy Use — 17% of total secondary energy use, responsible for 15% of GHG emissions

Canadian households use energy for a multitude of things: heating and cooling, lighting, cooking, hot water, appliances such as stoves, refrigerators, air conditioners, computers and televisions, the list goes on. Of those areas, heating and cooling indoor spaces, as well as heating water, account for the largest residential energy use. In 2007 the main types of energy used for home heating were natural gas (at 47% of households) and electricity (for 37%). The remainder was broken up between oil, wood, and propane.

The relationship between population and energy use.
This figure from a report by Natural Resources Canada shows where in what sectors most of Canadian secondary energy is used.

The average Canadian household, in 2007, consumed 106 GigaJoules (GJ) of energy, according to Statistics Canada. Let's measure that energy use in a familiar energy currency: Gasoline.

If roughly 0.016666 GJ of energy are contained in half a litre of gasoline, and the average soup bowl can hold about two cups (half a litre) of liquid, we can say that in 2007, the average Canadian households consumed about 6,360 bowls of gasoline.

Cumulatively, Canadian households consumed 1,368,955 TeraJoules (TJ) of energy. One TJ is equal to the energy contained in about 2,200 propane cylinders of the sort used on most gas BBQs.

Square-footage is growing, while residency is shrinking:

Between 1990 and 2008, average living space grew 10%, while the average number of people in a home shrank from 2.8 to 2.5. At the same time, material wealth increased; people came to possess more electronics, and more people than ever owned their own vehicle, or two.

This trend of "superior living standards" — ie. more living space shared between fewer people, and more material wealth in the form of cars, appliances, and electronics — means more energy is consumed, despite improvements in energy efficiency. Replacing old systems with newer, more efficient ones softened the rise in energy usage, but could not combat the demand for more, bigger homes (which were on average 33% larger in 2008 than in 1990), along with a corresponding rise in numbers of appliances and electronics.

The Commercial/Institutional Sector — 14% of total energy use, responsible for 13% of GHG emissions

Energy use within the commercial/institutional sector.
Energy use within the commercial/institutional sector.

This sector includes offices, educational services, health care, accommodation and food services, recreation, and various other services.

In the commercial/institutional (C&I) sector, energy is employed for use in many of the same applications as it is in residential homes: space heating, cooling, lighting, and water heating, though all generally on a larger scale. Additionally, energy is used for operating a range of equipment.

Not quite two decades after 1990, this sector's energy use had inflated by 39%, making it the fastest growing sector of Canada's energy pie. Establishments in the C&I sector are estimated to have consumed over 866 million GJ of energy in 2008; about the equivalent to the annual energy consumption of over eight million Canadian households.

Educational establishments consumed the greatest portion of energy at 138 million GJ. Close behind was Health Care (127 million GJ) and Retail Trade (105 million GJ).

Some progress was made in terms of conserving energy through efficiency of equipment. However, it could not keep up with the energy demanded by massive computerization. Computers, not just desktop computers and mobile phones, but banks of servers, have voracious energy appetites. As with the residential sector, predominant energy types are natural gas and electricity, as well as petroleum products.

The Industrial Sector — 37% of total energy usage, responsible for 32% of GHG emissions

The industrial sector encompasses all manufacturing, mining, forestry and construction activities. Energy in this sector is used primarily as a source of motive power, or to produce heat and steam. In 2008, natural gas and electricity made up just over half the fuels used. Wood waste, pulping liquor, and petroleum products made up the remainder.

Of the entire industrial sector, it is the pulp and paper, and smelting and refining industries that demand the most energy, with their usage accounting for about half the sector's energy usage.

The Transportation Sector — 30% of total energy usage, responsible for 36% of GHG emissions

Energy use within the commercial/institutional sector.
Virtually all of Canada's transportation relies upon some form of oil, be it diesel, motor gasoline, or aviation fuel.

Second to the industrial sector in terms of energy use, the transportation sector ranks number one with regard to GHG emissions. This sector comprises all road, air, rail and marine transport, as they are used to move both passengers and freight. The high GHG emissions of this sector directly relate to the GHG intensive fuels used: oil. In fact 96.25% of all powered transport in Canada relies upon some kind of oil.

The types of vehicles that Canadians choose to drive have a large impact on how the transportation sector rates in energy use and GHG emissions. Rather than downsizing to smaller cars, Canadians have preferred to upgrade to light trucks (including minivans and SUVs) since the 1990s. As a result Canadians are among the highest per capita users of oil in the world, moreso than Americans. Learn more about Canada's addiction to oil in our oil energy profile.

Growth in energy consumption is most intense in the commercial/institutional, and transportation sectors. Growth aside, the sector that uses the most energy in our economy, consuming 3,237.8 PJ (petajoule) of energy in 2008, was the industrial sector. One petajoule is roughly equal to the energy used by about 9,000 households in one year, exclusive of transportation.

Where do Canadians get their principle energy sources? In other words, where is the "cradle" for electricity, natural gas and oil?

The main sources of primary energy in Canada continue to be fossil fuels. Natural gas and electricity are the principle types of end-use energy purchased in Canada, together accounting for nearly half the energy used in 2008. Cumulatively, oil products represented 33% of energy usage that year.

Primary Energy
Though hydro and nuclear are important sources of electricity, primary energy use continues to be dominated by fossil fuels, for transportation, heating and in industrial processes.

Total primary energy produced in Canada in 2009 (the latest year for which such data is available) is broken down as follows:

Out of that production, 7,902,000 TJ of energy, or over half, was exported, the vast majority of it to the United States.

In addition to what was produced within the country, Canada imported 2,944,788 TJ in 2009. This gives a good idea of how integrated the Canadian and American economies are, with some parts of eastern Canada deriving more energy from the United States than from the west, while the west's primary export recipients are the American west, midwest and south.

For end-use consumption, those primary energies must be transformed into secondary energies. The following chart displays the most significant conversions:


Electricity is an energy currency, and emerges from several sources in Canada.

Large-scale, hydro-electric dams dominate Canada's electricity production. Presently, hydro-electric accounts for 60% of electricity produced in Canada. Read the details on this energy source in our large hydropower energy profile.

Additional electricity is derived from coal, uranium, natural gas and petroleum sources.

Natural Gas

Canada is the world's third-largest producer and exporter of natural gas. Read our energy profile on natural gas to learn about its production, use, environmental impacts and more.

Crude Oil

Canada possesses rich oil resources and ranks seventh in the world for crude oil production. Its proven oil reserves are said to be second only to Saudi Arabia's. Production has been on the rise in the past few decades, and is expected to accelerate because of development the development of the oil sands. The western provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan make the largest contribution to oil production, with smaller portions coming from B.C., Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Learn more about the different types of energy currencies derived from crude oil in our Energy Currencies section.

Energy Use in British Columbia

In 2009, BC's total energy consumption, inclusive of the energy required to create secondary electricity, reached 1,264 PJ — an enlargement of 21.6% compared to 1990. It is important to note that consumption of all fuels declined in 2009 in response to the global economic downturn. Nevertheless levels of consumption still remain considerably higher than they were in 1990. Decreased consumption in 2009, seen across the world, should not be mistaken for anything more than a temporary slowdown in economic activity, at least for the time being.

How is energy use distributed in BC?

A 2009 report by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions noted that almost all sectors — industrial, residential, transportation, agriculture and commercial/institutional — showed an increase in consumption over the period between 1990-2009. The notable exception was agriculture, which saw a 6% decrease.

* In the report by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (upon which much of this section is supported), the authors (Nyboer, Lutes and Jaccard) detail the sources of their data, namely: Statistics Canada, Environment Canada and the Canadian Socio-economic Information Management system (CANSIM). In the Methodology section, the authors discuss the benefits and drawbacks of these sources of information. Read their report here.

Residential Sector

The number of households in BC has been on a steady rise, climbing 37% between 1990 and 2005. BC Statistics estimated the total households to be just under 1.7 million in 2008. A small improvement in energy efficiency (about 10% for the period of 1990-2005) helped to moderate the upswing in energy consumption associated with more households, but could not neutralize it. BC is a close reflection of Canada in terms of residential energy use: space and water heating account for the majority of energy used, with appliances and lighting following close behind.

In terms of supply, BC is similar only to Quebec. Like Quebec, as a result of its abundant supply of hydroelectricity, nearly a third (32%) of B.C. households in 2006 used electricity as their primary fuel. Piped natural gas supplied the most homes at 59% in 2006, and collectively, oil and wood supplied 8%.

Putting the environmental costs of energy use aside, the rise in consumption has had an effect on monthly bills as well. In 2006, BC households spent an average of $1,650 on fuels for home activities, a rise of $119 from two years earlier.


The commercial/institutional (C&I) sector in BC grew by 32% between 1990-2009. Establishments in this sector are estimated to have consumed over 866 million GJ of energy in 2008 in Canada. This amount is about the equivalent to the annual energy consumption of over eight million Canadian households.

In 2008, about 16% of contributing establishments were located in B.C., compared to some of the higher portions from Ontario (36%) and Quebec (22%). The probable explanation for this division is that B.C. has a smaller population, thus resulting in fewer establishments in the region.

The division of energy consumption follows a similar pattern, with 12% of total consumption from BC, 30% in Ontario and 23% in Quebec.

Industrial Sector

Total industrial consumption increased by about 10% from 1990-2008. Over the roughly two decade period, consumption levels demonstrated yearly ups and downs, with peak consumption occurring in 2000. Peak levels were nearly matched in 2007. Out of all industrial sectors analyzed (ie. construction, forestry, total manufacturing and mining and oil and gas extraction) total manufacturing, which entails pulp and paper, was the largest consumer group. All groups have had their ups and downs over the study period, but still, the following increases in consumption since 1990 can be observed: 9% higher for total manufacturing, 17% higher for forestry, 45% higher for the mining/oil/gas extraction industry.


The transportation sector grew by 32% from 1990-2009. The increased use of pickups and SUVs in the residential sector, and large trucks for moving freight have paved the way for transportation to be the greatest contributor to GHG emissions in BC, at about 40% of total emissions.

Where are BC's energy cradles?

Primary energy sources in BC are natural gas, crude oil, hydropower, biomass and coal. Much of the province's natural gas and coal are exported, while petroleum products, and in some years electricity, are imported.


With a geography of snow-capped mountains and rushing rivers, it's a no-brainer for BC to capitalize on hydro-power. BC generates roughly 90% of its electricity from 72 hydro-electric generating stations, large and small, dispersed as follows: two along the Peace River, three near the northwest coast, 24 in the Columbia/Kootenay area, 26 on the Lower Mainland, 13 on Vancouver Island, and four others scattered between.

Please see our map of BC's electricity sources and read more in our energy profile on hydropower.

Crude Oil

BC's first oil fields were developed in the 1950s in the Fort St. John area. Since that time, over 40 new oil fields have been established. In 2008, roughly 1,061 wells produced an average of 23,070 barrels of oil per day, and 10,881 barrels of condensate. Though 14 exploratory wells were drilled offshore in the 1960s, moratoria put a freeze on any further activity. Growing demand for oil and gas has renewed interest in the potential resources plunged beneath the sea. The BC Energy Plan gives the indication that offshore development will go ahead eventually, stating that the BC government will "work with the federal government, communities and First Nations to advance offshore development in a scientifically sound and environmentally responsible way."

Learn more about the potential for future oil and gas development in B.C. with our fossil fuel potential map.


A transmission pipeline runs from northeast BC to a refinery in Prince George, then to Kamloops where it is piped to the coast. In 2009, an average of 19,300 barrels per day, were carried through this transmission pipeline. A separate pipeline moves crude oil and refined products from Edmonton, Alberta to terminals and refineries on BC's west coast.

The contentious Northern Gateway Pipeline, or the Enbridge (after the company proposing the project) Pipeline as it is commonly called, would connect the Alberta oil sands with a terminus at the port town of Kitimat, on B.C.'s North Coast. Communities along the route, especially First Nations, are vocalizing opposition to this development, which they feel would threaten their livelihoods. The very real risk of oil spills (Enbridge has experienced two high-profile leaks in the past few years) endangers key fish populations that have supported first nations for many centuries. The route would pass through ecologically and culturally significant areas, including major tributaries like the Salmon and Stuart Rivers, and Pacific coastal waters, not to mention forests along the way.

You can learn more at our map of BC's fossil fuel infrastructure and read more in our profile on oil

Natural Gas

BC is Canada's second largest producer of natural gas. Like the province's first oil fields, early natural gas development originated in the Fort St. John area. Gross production in 2008 averaged 3.2 billion cubic feet per day. The province has 7,157 producing gas wells. A 2,414 km transmission system running from northeast BC to Huntington/Sumas on the BC-US border, and a 170 km transmission system connecting Alberta to Kingsgate, transport natural gas around the province.

Read more in our energy profile on natural gas.


In 2009, nine active coal mines were dispersed in the following three areas of BC: the East Kootenay Coalfield, the Peace River Coalfield, and the Comox Coalfield on Vancouver Island. Cumulative production was 25.6 million tonnes, and the bulk was shipped to Japan, Korea, Europe and South America.

You can learn more see our map of BC's fossil fuel infrastructure and read more in our profile of B.C.'s coal mining industry.

Emissions in BC

These charts show that the bulk of British Columbia's climate change causing carbon emissions come from refined petroleum products, that is, cars, trucks, planes and trains.

Energy use within the commercial/institutional sector.
Greenhouse gas emissions by fuel source. Based on 2004 data from Nyboer, Lutes and Jaccard. 2011. Chart by Charlotte Helston.

The Best Laid Plans — Energy plans and strategies in BC

The province of BC has four main documents that address energy issues:

What These Entail

The BC Energy Plan was released in 2009 by B.C.'s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources. Divided into four main sections — Energy Conservation and Efficiency, Electricity, Alternative Energy, and Oil and Gas — the plan entails 55 policy actions to address our energy future. Timeline targets, such as B.C.'s energy self-sufficiency by 2016, are included. The Report on Progress, released in 2009 details the status of projects listed in the BC Energy Plan.

As a general overview, the BC Energy Plan promotes hydroelectricity, and steers clear of nuclear power. Promises are made to carry out projects in an environmentally and culturally sensitive and responsible manner, and First Nations consultations are indicated as a main priority in future projects. The Climate Action Plan (2009) is a similar document that describes key initiatives and progress made by government.

The BC Bioenergy Strategy focuses on bioenergy resources — wood, wood chips, sawdust — and emphasizes the potential to make use of wood affected by the mountain pine beetle.

The Green Energy Advisory Task Force Report led in part to the introduction of the Clean Energy Act, which encompasses 16 objectives to "set the foundation for a new future of electricity self-sufficiency, job creation and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, powered by unprecedented investments in clean, renewable energy across the province".


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