A coal-free grid within our grasp
Goal is doable with correct plan in place
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.