In 2015, roughly half of Alberta’s electricity came from burning coal. Mostly thanks to coal, greenhouse gas emissions from power generation were nearly 50 megatonnes a year.
That number is equivalent to two-thirds of the emissions from the entire oil sands. It’s equal to the emissions from every single car and truck in Ontario and Quebec. Yet no Hollywood star ever showed up to protest at one of the coal plants in Parkland County, west of Edmonton.
And now, here’s the good news: By 2023, Alberta will stop burning coal for power. It will accomplish this seven years ahead of schedule.
It’s a significant milestone, and no random miracle. It’s the market in action, and the direct result of carefully drawn public policies – namely, the carbon tax.
The story stretches back to 2007, when Alberta instituted North America’s first carbon tax on industry. It was, however, only a small levy, whose extra costs on coal power didn’t make much difference.
The turning point came in 2015. A newly elected New Democratic Party government announced an ambitious climate strategy. Getting off coal by 2030 was a central pillar.
Emissions from power generation were down to 44 megatonnes in 2017. The following year, the NDP’s tougher rules kicked in, and emissions immediately fell. The rules set a pollution target for all power plants to hit, and the dirtier an operation, the more it would pay. Burning coal suddenly became a lot more costly and power companies responded, mostly by turning to natural gas. In 2018, the use of coal plummeted – and emissions fell by a quarter in a single year, to 33 megatonnes.
The transition has not been free or painless. The end of coal reverberates in communities that were built on the industry, and government programs have invested money in hard-hit places like Parkland County.
Alberta is also paying $1.4-billion in compensation to three power companies, money coming out of the province’s carbon tax revenue. Power rates, meanwhile, have remained reasonable.
Despite challenges, the plan is working. The final dominos are starting to fall. In November, TransAlta said it would stop burning coal at the end of 2021. In December, Capital Power said it will be off coal by 2023, as it spends $1-billion to convert two plants to gas.
And that’s it. Like Ontario before – the province went coal-free in 2014 – Alberta’s power will be liberated from coal.
The transition also survived a change in provincial government. Before Jason Kenney became Premier, he was a fierce defender of coal. In late 2016, he told Facebook followers that “Jason digs coal” and said the coal power shutdown would only “stroke the egos of extreme environmental professional activists.”
But even as Mr. Kenney in office has railed against Ottawa’s consumer carbon tax, he quietly kept the NDP’s strict carbon rules for power generation.
The quick end of coal in Alberta is being made possible by a ready supply of cheap natural gas. This is progress, but in the long run, more will be needed. That’s because, although natural gas is less polluting than coal, it still produces about half as much greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy. A bigger search for alternatives, from the obvious solar and wind to the currently less viable nuclear and carbon capture, will be necessary. Research from the Pembina Institute shows that a combination of clean power technologies compete well against natural gas.
A rising carbon tax helps, too.
Other provinces with big parts of their electricity sector powered by coal – Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – need to look to Alberta’s template. There are doubts the national coal-free goal of 2030 will be met.
It is important to appreciate what has been accomplished: a lot, in a short time. By 2023, power generation in Alberta will be producing a bit more than 20 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year – less than half the 2015 level. That’s a reduction equivalent to shutting down a third of the oil sands, or taking every car and truck off the road in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
In the span of half a decade, a bad news climate story became a good news climate story. As Canada aims for net-zero emissions by 2050, it’s a reminder of what’s possible.
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