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(JOHN LEHMANN/The GlobeandMail/JOHN LEHMANN/The GlobeandMail)
(JOHN LEHMANN/The GlobeandMail/JOHN LEHMANN/The GlobeandMail)


Alberta must kick its coal habit Add to ...

Given the rapid advances in clean energy around the world, it’s hard to understand why anyone would defend coal’s future in Alberta’s electricity mix without considering the realistic options the province has at its disposal. Alberta can secure dependable, affordable, clean electricity to replace coal-fired power, and it can do so starting immediately.

In 2009, the Pembina Institute examined the range of technically and economically viable clean energy resources in Alberta, assuming the technology never improved from what was available at that time. This research, published in a report called Greening the Grid, found that Alberta’s wealth of clean energy resources would allow the province to replace coal entirely in the next 20 years.

Significant technology advances have occurred since 2009 in the renewable energy world. Germany, for instance, installed enough solar panels in 2010 alone to power more than 12 per cent of Alberta’s energy needs. A study released this week by the Geological Survey of Canada found there’s enough geothermal potential to meet Canada’s electricity needs one million times over – and that’s no far-off solution, since Italy has been using geothermal as a source of electricity for more than a century.

It’s obvious there’s not a lack of clean resources holding Alberta back, but the province must choose to take advantage of them rather than fighting to keep the status quo.

Alberta is home to some of the best renewable resources in the country. Our farms offer opportunities to harvest biomass, manure for biogas, and new “crops” of wind and solar energy. In fact, the province’s wind resources are among the best in North America, and we have extensive, undeveloped hydro and geothermal opportunities. In short, Alberta has all the resources it needs to become a leader in low- or no-emission power.

Alberta also sits on abundant natural gas reserves. These can be used to run smaller, more responsive plants to quickly meet changes in demand and shortfalls in supply from other sources. They emit around half the greenhouse gas pollution of today’s coal plants. Many companies in Alberta are using gas even more efficiently in combined heat and power plants that generate electricity while using the excess heat for industrial processes or building heating.

Certainly, new coal technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, could be an important part of Alberta’s future energy mix. But carbon capture is no cheap magic bullet for today’s dirty power. Since the technology is not yet proved on economic scales, leaning on it as the primary means to reduce emissions in Alberta (rather than investing in efficiency and renewables) essentially subsidizes coal at the expense of cleaner options.

Instead of defending coal’s role in Alberta’s electricity mix, the province would do well to consider alternatives before assuming they’re unworkable and unaffordable.

It’s easy to understand why Albertans might be under that impression, with senior officials such as Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert saying otherwise. This week, he justified the province’s reluctance to move off coal, saying: “Albertans aren’t prepared to pay twice the amount for electricity.”

The reality is that power prices have already doubled just this month, with coal still forming the backbone of the system. There’s no evidence to suggest that new coal units will be any less expensive than cleaner options in the future.

And Alberta’s electricity prices are set to continue to rise with or without new investments in coal, because most of the province’s coal plants will reach the end of their lives over the next 20 years. Just like replacing an old car with a new model, no one can build a new coal plant today for the same price they paid back in the 1970s.

Most renewable energy technologies are already more affordable than new coal plants will be, and for the minister to say otherwise is irresponsible.

It’s time for Alberta to start the long walk toward weaning off dirty coal-fired electricity, and the first step is to avoid building any new coal plants without carbon capture and storage. Other provinces are showing it can be done – Ontario is on track to phase out its entire coal fleet by 2014 and rebuild its grid with cleaner sources. Nova Scotia, which is proportionally more dependent on coal than Alberta, has legislated renewable energy targets that would cut its coal-fired electricity generation in half by 2020.

The last conversation we ought to be having in 2011 is about securing coal’s future in Alberta’s electricity grid. That future is already far too dirty.

Tim Weis, a professional engineer with a PhD in environmental science, is director of renewable energy and efficiency policy for the Calgary-based Pembina Institute.

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