In 2015, Alberta was yoked to burning coal to produce electricity. Coal generated close to two-thirds of the province’s power. After the NDP’s Rachel Notley was elected premier, she announced Alberta would get off coal power by 2030, as part of a suite of climate policies. The goal – and the seemingly short 15 years to reach it – was ambitious.
Alberta has smashed the goal, getting the job done in barely half the time. It will be fully off coal power by the end of 2023. It shows that entrenched systems that often take decades to plan, design and build can in fact be overhauled a lot faster than skeptics might believe. The key ingredients are well-crafted policy, a clear goal, and a commitment to both.
The federal Liberals have pledged to reach net zero emissions from electricity by 2035. Policy details of clean electricity regulations are expected this summer – backed by billions of dollars in funding. While Alberta and Saskatchewan both promise net zero power by 2050, premiers Danielle Smith and Scott Moe this month rejected 2035 as too expensive and unrealistic.
This is a can’t-do attitude, the opposite of the Prairies’ more typical can-do spirit. Ambition is what’s necessary.
Net zero power by 2035 in the Prairie provinces is certainly an ambitious goal. Unlike Canada as a whole – where power is more than 80-per-cent clean – the majority of power in Alberta and Saskatchewan is from fossil fuels. Natural gas helped Alberta get off coal; it’s also helped Saskatchewan cut its coal use. Power in the two provinces more closely resembles the United States but south of the border, President Joe Biden aims to hit net zero power by 2035, with massive public funding.
What the conservative opposition on the Prairies belies is how fast renewables are gaining ground. Alberta’s power grid capacity is about 18,000 megawatts. About one-third is renewables. Solar rose by a factor of 10 from 2020 to 2022 and wind capacity more than doubled, according to the system operator; 27,000 MW of solar, wind and energy storage are either being built, approved or announced. In Saskatchewan, capacity is about 5,200 MW. One-third is renewables and the province is planning 3,000 MW of new wind and solar by 2035. SaskPower says it will halve emissions by 2030 compared with the late 2010s. That’s impressive and suggests getting close to net zero by 2035 isn’t a radical goal.
Then there’s the possibilities of interprovincial power lines. This old idea is gaining ground. British Columbia and Manitoba are rich in hydro power. Alberta and Saskatchewan are home to some of the best solar and wind potential. The Prairie provinces promote breaking down trade barriers. Power should top the list.
There are questions of costs. A report last year from the Alberta system operator estimated net zero power by 2035 could see the price of electricity rise by 40 per cent. But critics said the report was flawed and used a price for solar power that’s double the actual current cost. A report this month for Alberta’s United Conservative Party showed reaching the 2035 goal would have only a nominal negative economic impact, lowering annual GDP growth by 0.03 per cent. Meanwhile, research last year in the journal Joule suggests net zero will produce gains, not losses, and in Nova Scotia, new wind power is lowering the price of power.
Still, the outcome must be abundant and reliable power, at reasonable prices. A totally clean grid, with a mix of solar, wind, hydro, battery storage and nuclear, can deliver this result, but costs have to be managed. Nuclear, for one example, has a long history of going over budget.
There is no debate about the need to get to net zero power. Whether that’s fully accomplished by 2035 is a distraction. Alberta and Saskatchewan are making big progress. If the Prairies slash most, but not all, of their power emissions by 2035, that’s a major win. The Liberals’ proposed strict deadline focuses action – but some flexibility is also important.
Most of all, declaring today that it can’t be done is definitely not how to get there. Every province, backed by Ottawa, needs to push as ambitiously as possible.