In 2021, before Amazon unveiled a new cloud-computing centre in Calgary, the company started to pour money into Alberta’s bountiful potential for clean power.
The key deal came last June, with Amazon buying most of the power from a 465-megawatt solar farm, Canada’s largest. In November, with local clean power secured, Amazon said it will invest more than $3-billion in its new facility in Calgary by 2037, and help create 950 jobs.
In the national imagination, Alberta is defined by oil and natural gas. But it is also proving to be home to a broader array of energy, from solar and wind. Natural Resources Canada points to Alberta, as well as the other Prairie provinces, as the home of the country’s best outlook for solar power.
Alberta, among the provinces, has a unique deregulated electricity market. Companies such as Amazon can buy directly from power producers. The heft of Amazon makes things happen, but a bunch of smaller deals also matter, and since 2019 they’ve been mounting.
The Business Renewables Centre, which tracks such deals, tallied investments of almost $4-billion, supporting 4,500 jobs and producing two gigawatts of energy – enough to power every home in Calgary and three smaller Alberta cities. Hitting the 2 GW mark came three years earlier than expected. One of the latest deals was in June between the City of Edmonton and a wind farm. “Alberta is now the wind and solar capital of Canada,” the BRC says.
In last year’s federal election, the Liberals pledged the country would cut emissions from power generation to net zero by 2035. It’s an ambitious promise. The United States has made a similar one. Getting fossil fuels out of power generation is an essential part of driving climate heating emissions lower, as is producing more power as sectors of the economy, like transportation, go electric. Rapid declines in the price of wind and solar help make these big promises more realistic.
But they remain promises, and 2035 is just 13 years away. This March, Ottawa started talks on a national “clean electricity standard.” Issues include grid reliability, affordability and regulations that make sense.
Another challenge is that power is a provincial matter. And while Canada’s power is already more than 80 per cent clean, thanks to hydro, nuclear and wind, cleaning up the rest of it will require a lot of work and a lot of money.
Provinces have delivered on similar challenges in recent years. Ontario set a goal in 2003 to get off coal, and did it by 2014. Alberta made the same pledge in 2015, when coal produced about half its power. The target date was 2030; Alberta will actually be off coal next year.
Natural gas, in Alberta especially, was the bridge fuel. But natural gas is only a half-step. Renewables are the real leap.
The Alberta Electric System Operator concluded in a report last week that reaching net-zero power by 2035 will be difficult. The report cited continued high growth in renewables as the cheapest route forward. It could still cost more than $40-billion, the AESO said. But the momentum clearly exists, with almost $4-billion invested in only a few years.
Entities like AESO are naturally cautious. Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator last year said that getting off gas power by 2030 would be expensive and risky. But this spring it emerged that other options could work.
In both cases, the deadlines were a problem. Okay, so net zero by 2035 is tough. But getting three-quarters of the way there by 2035 could be more viable. That’s still a win – even if it’s not a total win.
It requires ambition, like getting off coal. The Alberta government responded to the AESO report by saying, basically, “See? Not feasible!” But the province is known for its can-do attitude. Getting to net zero is about embracing challenges and, as Amazon shows, there is a future for clean power in Alberta.
There remain valid criticisms of the 2035 goal. What are the exact plans? What are the precise regulations? And, yes, 2035 is coming up fast. Cost is another thing. But wind and solar keep getting cheaper and, in the past two years, natural gas has become more and more expensive. And remember, the carbon tax is rising.
It’s worth repeating: Alberta is the country’s new wind and solar capital. The bottom line is that what’s happening there shows vast potential, in the province and across Canada.
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