December 17, 2014 Op/ED published in the Edmonton Journal

Weaning from Alberta’s Coal Dependence

Alternate title:  How to get Alberta off of Coal in 10-15 years


Federal regulations have given most of Alberta’s coal plants 50 years to operate.  Our coalition thinks that’s too long. It is unacceptable to imagine impacts on Albertan’s health (and the global climate) continuing on for another 47 years, when I (Joe), currently 45,  turn 92, and my 6 year old daughter turns 53.   We are proposing a 10-15 year coal phase out.  It’s been done before: Ontario, which in 2004 had about the same absolute amount of generation from coal as Alberta has today, closed its last plant in April of this year.  Prime Minister Cameron of the UK in late September proposed a 10-15 year coal phase out (of 25000 MW!).  And we now have Premier Prentice publicly stating he too sees a 10-15 year phase out in this province’s future.

Can it be done?  Replacing 6250 MW of generation will be challenging, but with a strong plan, it is doable, with many benefits for the province.  The first and easist target, is energy efficiency.  Amazingly, we are the only Canadian province, and one of very few jurisdictions in North America, without any energy efficiency program. Such a program is a win/win for everyone, saving customers money, and decreasing electrical demand. Targeting 10% improvements by 2020 takes the equivalent of 1400 MW of coal power offline… or equal to 5 of the oldest units.

The next “wedge” is renewable energy.  Once again, we are the only province, and one of the few jurisdictions in North America, without an RE strategy (although one has been promised for years); despite the fact that we have the best solar and wind resources in the country.  As the technology has improved, wind has become on-par for cost with fossil fuel generation, and solar is not far behind… and the costs for both keep dropping.  In 2013, renewables in Alberta accounted for only 10.2% of electricty generation.  Contrast this with the generation for locations such as Germany (31% first 6 months of 2014, projecting 45% by 2025), California (20% in 2013, projecting 33% by 2020) and Nova Scotia (18% in 2013, projecting 40% by 2020), which have strong renewable energy policies.  Our current provincial target for 2020?  Who knows?  We need to develop strong policy to catch up to the leaders in the field.

Natural gas seems like an easy replacement to coal, and will probably be a component of the solution in the short term, as we transition to a fully green grid.  It does burn cleaner than coal, generating around half the CO2 emissions, and much fewer toxic pollutants.

But there are distinct risks to simply replacing coal directly with natural gas. Unlike renewables, there are fuel input costs.  As the commodity fluctuates — and rises – with world markets, so too will our electricity bills.  Secondly, although cleaner, natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and therefore produces GHGs.  With a projected lifespan of 35 ears for each plant, we will be investing in infrastructure that will continue to pollute for another full generation.

Finally, as methane is thirty times more potent a greenhouse gas  than CO2, it has been calculated that if fugitive emissions from the system (from drilling to pipelines to compressor stations) exceed  3%,  the climate benefits from using it as a fuel are negated.  Current estimates suggest 4-9% leakage rates.

If we are going to use natural gas, we need to do it wisely.  Not massive generating plants far from the end-users (such as the three new gas plants proposed for the Wabamun region).  A more elegant and efficient solution is Combined Heat and Power (CHP, aka co-generation).  If we are going to burn natural gas, let’s use it to produce heat and electricity right where both can be used, and save expensive electricity transmission costs.  Co-gen is currently used in Ft. McMurray, and District Energy Centres employing CHP are operating at many of our large institutions, such as our universities. These should be mandated for all new densely clustered communities, as well as existing industrial and commercial centres which require year-round heat loads.

By 2030, with energy efficiencies of 20%, renewables at 40%, and upgraded electricity grid interconnections between provinces, we can have a coal-free grid.  It’s happening elsewhere, and we can make it happen here too. For all of our vulnerable patients, our children, and future generations.


Dr. Joe Vipond is an Emergency Physician in Calgary and a member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment


Ken Hogg is an Environmental Engineer and founder of the Alberta Renewable Energy Alliance.