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Cheap and dirty: Where provinces diverge on energy crossroads

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.

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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.

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"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.

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"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."

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.


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.


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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