“When you turn on a light or computer, you don’t need to think about where your electricity comes from,” according to the Alberta Electric System Operator, which runs the province’s power grid. “That’s our job.”
This claim on the AESO website might be apt if Alberta got most of its electricity from, say, hydroelectric dams or wind farms.
That isn’t the case. More than 35 per cent of its power is produced by burning coal (and much of the rest from natural gas). That’s down from more than half five or so years ago. And coal’s share is likely to continue falling thanks to a $30-a-tonne provincial tax on big industrial users, including coal-fired power plants.
But in a world gripped by the devastating consequences of global warming, Albertans should probably worry that so much of their electricity still comes from coal.
A significant chunk of that electricity is used in the energy-intensive extraction and refining of oil sands crude. Using coal to produce electricity needlessly inflates the carbon content of Alberta’s oil, making it tougher for the province to brand its No. 1 export as clean and ethical.
Premier Jason Kenney is keeping the NDP’s carbon tax on large emitters of greenhouse gases.
Perhaps Alberta’s main customers, including oil refiners along the U.S. Gulf Coast, don’t care about the carbon footprint of the crude they buy. But when Alberta starts shipping more of its oil to markets in Asia and elsewhere, via the expanded Trans Mountain pipeline, buyers may care a lot.
The developed world is rapidly shifting away from coal, one of the dirtiest fuels. France will close its last coal-burning power plant in 2022, and Britain in 2025. Germany plans to be coal-free by 2038 in spite of shuttering all of its nuclear reactors.
Even in the United States, utilities are systematically retiring older coal plants and aren’t building any new ones. One of the lone exceptions is Japan, which is building 22 new coal-burning power plants over the next five years – a reaction to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, which caused the country to close down its nuclear program and shore up its energy security.
A question Albertans should ask themselves is why the provincial government has moved so slowly to find alternatives to coal? It’s not like there aren’t carbon-free options out there.
The obvious answer is expediency. Coal and natural gas are cheap and readily available.
And Alberta has dragged its feet on levelling the playing field with clean and renewable alternatives – through regulation, carbon pricing or by subsidizing other power sources. Surely, a portion of provincial royalties collected from oil and gas producers could be used to subsidize the greening of the power grid.
Wind now makes up nearly 10 per cent of Alberta’s electricity mix. Presumably, that could be expanded.
Years of talk about building nuclear plants, perhaps small modular units, to power the oil sands have so far led nowhere.
A more obvious and readily available alternative to coal is hydro. Hydro makes up less than 6 per cent of Alberta’s electricity supply, compared with an average of 60 per cent in the rest of the country.
Yes, hydro projects are expensive ventures that can take years to get regulatory approval and depend on long-term pricing. But so are oil sands projects.
Here’s a nation-building idea: Alberta could turn to its neighbours in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which all have significant untapped hydro resources. With B.C., there might even be a win-win deal to make. Alberta could buy billions of dollars worth of hydro from the massive Site C project in northern B.C. if its neighbour softened its opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
The carbon footprint of Alberta’s electricity wasn’t a major consideration 20 years ago, when oil sands production was sharply ramping up. But it should be central to the discussion now, particularly as Teck Resources proposes another oil sands megaproject – the $20-billion Frontier open-pit mine.
So, yes, Albertans should think about where their electricity comes from.
If it’s not seen as green enough, the world may not want their oil.
Editor’s note: (Feb. 10, 2020): An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Alberta government has abandoned the previous NDP government's commitment to phase out coal by 2030.