A coal-free grid within our grasp

Goal is doable with cor­rect plan in place

Edmonton Journal - - IDEAS - DR. JOE VIPOND and KEN HOGG

Fed­eral reg­u­la­tions have given most of Al­berta’s coal plants 50 years to op­er­ate, but our coali­tion thinks that’s too long. It is un­ac­cept­able to imag­ine im­pacts on Al­ber­tans’ health — and the global cli­mate — con­tin­u­ing on for another 47 years.

We are propos­ing a 10to 15-year coal phase-out, which has been done be­fore. On­tario, which in 2004 had about the same ab­so­lute amount of gen­er­a­tion from coal as Al­berta has to­day, closed its last plant in April of this year. Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron in late Septem­ber pro­posed a 10- to 15-year coal phase­out — of 25,000 megawatts (MW). And we now have Premier Jim Pren­tice pub­licly stat­ing he, too, sees the 10- to 15-year phase-out in this prov­ince’s fu­ture.

Can it be done? Re­plac­ing 6,250 MW of gen­er­a­tion will be chal­leng­ing, but with a strong plan, it is doable, with many ben­e­fits for the prov­ince. The first and eas­i­est tar­get is en­ergy ef­fi­ciency. Amaz­ingly, we are the only prov­ince, and one of very few ju­ris­dic­tions in North Amer­ica, with­out any en­ergy ef­fi­ciency pro­gram. Such a pro­gram is a win/win for ev­ery­one, sav­ing cus­tomers money and de­creas­ing elec­tri­cal de­mand. Tar­get­ing 10 per cent im­prove­ments by 2020 takes the equiv­a­lent of 1,400 MW of coal power off-line … or equal to five of the old­est units.

The next “wedge” is re­new­able en­ergy. Once again, we are the only prov­ince, and one of the few ju­ris­dic­tions in North Amer­ica, with­out a re­new­able en­ergy strat­egy — although one has been promised for years — de­spite the fact we have the best so­lar and wind re­sources in the coun­try. As the tech­nol­ogy has im­proved, wind has be­come on-par for cost with fos­sil fuel gen­er­a­tion, and so­lar is not far be­hind … and the costs for both keep drop­ping. In 2013, re­new­ables in Al­berta ac­counted for only 10.2 per cent of elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion. Con­trast this with the gen­er­a­tion for lo­ca­tions such as Ger­many (31 per cent the first six months of 2014, pro­ject­ing 45 per cent by 2025), Cal­i­for­nia (20 per cent in 2013, pro­ject­ing 33 per cent by 2020) and Nova Sco­tia (18 per cent in 2013, pro­ject­ing 40 per cent by 2020), which have strong re­new­able en­ergy poli­cies. Our cur­rent provin­cial tar­get for 2020? Who knows? We need to de­velop strong pol­icy to catch up to the lead­ers in the field.

Nat­u­ral gas seems like an easy re­place­ment to coal, and will prob­a­bly be a com­po­nent of the so­lu­tion in the short term, as we tran­si­tion to a fully green grid. It does burn cleaner than coal, gen­er­at­ing around half the CO2 emis­sions, and much fewer toxic pol­lu­tants. But there are dis­tinct risks to sim­ply re­plac­ing coal di­rectly with nat­u­ral gas. Un­like re­new­ables, there are fuel in­put costs. As the com­mod­ity rises and falls with world mar­kets, so too will our elec­tric­ity bills. Sec­ond, although cleaner, nat­u­ral gas is still a fos­sil fuel, and there­fore pro­duces green­house gases. With a pro­jected life­span of 35 years for each plant, we will be in­vest­ing in in­fra­struc­ture that will con­tinue to pol­lute for another full gen­er­a­tion.

Fi­nally, as meth­ane is 30 times more po­tent a GHG than CO2, it has been cal­cu­lated that if fugi­tive emis­sions from the sys­tem (from drilling to pipe­lines to com­pres­sor sta­tions) ex­ceed three per cent, the cli­mate ben­e­fits from us­ing it as a fuel are negated.

Cur­rent es­ti­mates sug­gest leak­age rates of four to nine per cent.

If we are go­ing to use nat­u­ral gas we need to do it wisely. Not mas­sive gen­er­at­ing plants far from the end-users, such as the three new gas plants pro­posed for the Waba­mun re­gion. A more el­e­gant and ef­fi­cient so­lu­tion is com­bined heat and power (CHP, also known as co­gen­er­a­tion). If we are go­ing to burn nat­u­ral gas, let’s use it to pro­duce heat and elec­tric­ity right where both can be used, and save ex­pen­sive elec­tric­ity trans­mis­sion costs. Co-gen is cur­rently used in Fort McMur­ray, and Dis­trict En­ergy Cen­tres em­ploy­ing CHP are op­er­at­ing at many of our large in­sti­tu­tions, such as our univer­si­ties. Th­ese should be man­dated for all new densely clus­tered com­mu­ni­ties, as well as ex­ist­ing in­dus­trial and com­mer­cial cen­tres which re­quire year­round heat loads.

By 2030, with en­ergy ef­fi­cien­cies of 20 per cent, re­new­ables at 40 per cent and up­graded elec­tric­ity grid in­ter­con­nec­tions be­tween prov­inces, we can have a coal-free grid. It’s hap­pen­ing else­where, and we can make it hap­pen here, too, for all of our vul­ner­a­ble pa­tients, our chil­dren and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Dr. Joe Vipond is an emer­gency physi­cian in Cal­gary and a mem­ber of the Cana­dian As­so­ci­a­tion of Physi­cians for the En­vi­ron­ment. Ken Hogg is an en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer and founder of the Al­berta Re­new­able En­erg y Al­liance.


A gi­ant drag line works in the High­vale Coal Mine to feed the nearby Sundance Power Plant near Waba­mun.


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