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Time to Lead

Cheap and dirty: Where provinces diverge on energy crossroads Add to ...

As the issue has stirred attention, some companies have retreated from the public eye. TransAlta will operate the Keephills plant, and its Alberta coal plants produced 22 MT (about four million cars worth) of emissions in 2009. The company didn’t respond to multiple interview requests.

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Meanwhile, the Canadian government is cracking down. Environment Minister Peter Kent announced a draft plan last month to bring in regulations for new coal plants and those at least 45 years old (those already built and younger than 45 years won’t be affected). The rules essentially limit emissions and increase cost.

“We are taking action in the electricity sector because we recognize the potential for significant emissions reductions,” Mr. Kent said. New regulations would come into force on July 1, 2015. Meanwhile, another power company, Maxim Power, is trying to rush a power plant into effect before the deadline. Mr. Kent has signalled he’ll hold a new plant to new standards, whether it starts operation before July 1, 2015, or not.

“We didn’t set July the 1st, 2015, as a window for short-cutters to get up and running for another 50 years of greenhouse-gas emissions and toxic pollutions that will impact the health of people,” Mr. Kent told The Globe.

On the green (and expensive) end of the spectrum is Ontario, which five years ago burned just as much coal as Alberta. Since then, however, it’s rushed away from the Dickensian, dirty-but-cheap energy stalwart. Ontario hopes to be coal-free by 2014. In 2003, Ontario produced 15 megawatts of wind energy. Today, it produces 1,600 megawatts, enough for 400,000 homes.

“All we had to say was: ‘we want to get rid of smog.’ And everyone said, ‘sign me up,’” said Keith Stewart, a veteran Ontario climate activist who began campaigning against coal 13 years ago. He now works with Greenpeace. “This is the largest single action being taken to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the country – the Ontario coal phase-out.”

To do that, it’s offering lucrative subsidies for renewables. The cost is high, with the Ontario Energy Ministry projecting the 46-per-cent power bill increase over five years. To ease the transition, it offered a one-time Clean Energy Benefit this year.

Whether it will significantly improve air quality is unclear. As Ontario goes green, the limping economies of the nearby American Midwest continue to rely on coal, the emissions of which cross political borders.

The Ontario government, with a massive deficit, has nonetheless decided it’s worth paying more for greener energy. Resource-rich Alberta, instead, is subsidizing carbon capture and storage research that would limit emissions – working to improve coal, but not rushing to get rid of it.

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More than half of Canada’s coal plants are reaching the end of their lifespan. The country has abundant coal reserves – 37 billion tons of proven reserves in Alberta alone, enough to last for centuries – but Mr. Kent says new plants will have to be as good as natural gas.

Natural gas, however, also generates significant carbon emissions, though nowhere near those of coal power plants.

If it were up to him, David Keith – the Canada Research Chair in Energy and the Environment and a University of Calgary professor – would move Alberta to a mix of wind (ample only in the province’s south) and nuclear power (which is expensive). There’s little provincial mood, however, to do away with coal.

“The basic fact is it’s an issue here and people are happy to forget it. There’ve been essentially no stories about [the Keephills plant that opened] and no environmental protest. Greenpeace didn’t lock itself to the sign. That was a deliberate choice, and it’s a very interesting choice and in some ways a really odd choice,” Prof. Keith said.

While the oil sands also produce excessive carbon – about 15 per cent of Alberta’s output, compared to 23 per cent for the coal-dominated power sector – they’re the economic engine of the province. Shutting the oil sands down could send the province into a depression, but switching from coal would be the lesser of two economic evils – power bills would increase, by Prof. Keith’s estimates, about 20 per cent.

There’s little sign, however, a switch from coal is likely to happen.

“It’s extremely cheap and people don’t care about climate change that much,” Prof. Keith said. “I’m being a little glib. Obviously these are complicated social decisions. Whether people would actually be willing to pay the real cost of sensible climate policy or not? It’s an open question.”

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