With every load of laundry or flicker of the TV, your province’s complex system of power plants hums away, keeping the lights on amid ebbs and flows of demand.
Each province has its own grid, however, so each system is different. Some power is dirty. The ecological footprint of a clean T-shirt depends on where its owner lives.
Canada is at a crossroads over clean energy and its dirtiest fuel: coal. It’s cheap, reliable and abundant, so six provinces use it, but its greenhouse-gas emissions far outpace any other power source. It’s why the federal government is moving to slap emissions limits on certain coal plants.
It’s among the most tangible dilemmas that climate change poses for Canadians – people may want a green economy, but they’ll have to pay for it.
Ontario is backing away from coal, and hoping to wean itself off it entirely by 2014. Over the next five years, however, power bills are projected to jump 46 per cent, in part because of the subsidy-laden transition to expensive renewables like solar and wind power.
While Ontario goes green, Alberta’s staying brown. Alberta is the land of coal production and consumption. It’s also Canada’s dirtiest province for greenhouse gases, producing a third of the country’s emissions with a tenth of its population. The single-largest culprit isn’t from the province’s booming oil and gas sector, however. It’s a coal power plant that generates more emissions than any oil-sands facility.
Coal provides just over 70 per cent of Alberta’s power. It’s cheap (existing plants can keep running at about a third of the cost per kilowatt hour of building new nuclear, for instance) but dirty. It’s why a day of air conditioning an Alberta home can produce an entire ton of carbon pollution, and the average home’s washer, dryer and flatscreen TV often produce as much GHG as a family car. Buying an electric car in Alberta makes little difference – a Chevy Volt is just 25 per cent better than an internal combustion engine when plugged into Alberta’s coal-fired power grid.
An average 450 megawatt coal plant, such as one opened in Alberta this month, produces about as much carbon emissions as 600,000 cars and 200 times more than Ontario’s Bruce Power nuclear plant.
“It’s really clear that we just can’t afford to continue to be building coal plants in Alberta,” said Chris Severson-Baker of the Calgary-based Pembina Institute, which filed a legal challenge this summer to Alberta’s most recent proposed coal plant. “It’s just taking us in the exact wrong direction in terms of meeting climate-change challenges.”
Alberta, however, says it’d simply be too expensive to switch over too soon, noting the province doesn’t have the good fortune of available hydro power.
“It’s not a matter of whether you’ll ultimately get off coal or not. It’s how you do it and when you do it. I just think Albertans aren’t prepared to pay twice the amount for electricity,” Energy Minister Ron Liepert said.
No power source is ideal. Solar is expensive, wind unreliable, hydro floods massive swaths of land, natural gas has volatile pricing and nuclear has high upfront costs and produces radioactive waste. But coal has the highest emissions and is the least popular (just 6 per cent of Canadians in a recent survey “strongly support” its use).
It also has a high toll on human health.
Coal power is a leading contributor to smog and low air quality, which kills thousands of North Americans a year. Ontario alone estimates its costs for “health-related damages of coal” could top $3-billion per year. Harvard University research published this year suggests coal’s total cost, with health effects factored in, are much higher. Viewed that way, it’s twice as expensive as wind power.
Alberta’s coal plants, meanwhile, produced 43 megatons (MT) of carbon-equivalent emissions in 2009 – about the same as eight million cars. You’d need an area the size of Switzerland filled with fully grown pine trees to offset it. They also produce toxic pollutants, such as mercury.
But far from backing away from coal, as Ontario is, Alberta is pushing forward. A new plant opened just west of Edmonton earlier this month, a 450-MW plant known as “Keephills 3” that will produce 3.4 MT of carbon a year. Coal executives and the Alberta government say current models produce less pollution.
“You drive by that plant, you see nothing coming out of the stack. It is an indication there may be something right,” said Brian Vaasjo, chief executive officer of Capital Power, which built the new Keephills plant – the application for which was submitted roughly as Ontario’s campaign to do away with coal began to take off. Coal is cheap and its technology is improving, he said. “There’s a number of reasons for continuing to invest in coal.”