Dash to Gas? Not so Fast
Or:Coal to what? Why Energy Efficiency and Renewables win over Natural Gas
By Dr. Joe Vipond
During the recent election campaign, the various political parties (with the exception of the PCs) spoke as one voice: we need an accelerated coal phase out. We need this both for public health reasons, and to tackle climate change, where our neglect has eroded Alberta’s reputation in Canada and internationally. Under the leadership of the NDP, this can become a truly multi-partisan effort, with support from the Wildrose, the Alberta Party and the Alberta Liberals.
But as we close our 6277 MW of coal generation, what should we progress to? There has been much talk of a switch to a natural gas solution, and indeed 2836 MW of new gas generation has been approved or proposed for installation by 2019 (in addition to the 7204 MW of cogeneration, simple cycle, and combined cycle natural gas plants currently operating in Alberta).
Natural gas is argued to be plentiful, cheap, and burns much cleaner than coal. We’ve got it in the ground, as we used to say for coal, why don’t we burn it?
The first problem is that although cleaner when burned, due to their immense size, they still emit substantial air pollution. The Capital Airshed has recently been shown to have a significant problem with air pollution from fine particulate matter (PM 2.5). The proposed natural gas plant Sundance 7, just upwind from the city, would increase the primary PM 2.5 from industry in the Wabamun region by another 5.2%, and the Genesee 4 and 5 plants, in the same area, up to a further 3.3%. It is important to note that there is no safe exposure threshold for PM 2.5, meaning any increase will contribute to increased mortality and/or illness for exposed populations.
Natural gas does emit about 55% less carbon dioxide than coal when combusted for energy production. But any gas leaks during drilling, extraction and transportation (known as fugitive emissions), substantially increase the greenhouse gas impacts of natural gas. This is because the methane in natural gas is at least 70 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the short term of 20 years. So emissions into the atmosphere of methane beyond 3% of total natural gas use have been shown to virtually negate the benefits of switching from coal to gas. It is extremely hard to quantify actual fugitive emissions, and no reliable estimates have been reported for Alberta. However, in the US, fugitive emissions have been calculated to range from 0.6% to as high as 9%, with many estimates above 3%.
Finally, and perhaps most important, if we populate our grid with new natural gas facilities, with a projected lifespan of 30-35 years, we leave no room for energy efficiency or renewable energy The current federal plan for phasing out coal calls for the closure only 867 MW of coal generation by 2019… even a more aggressive proposal for a 10-15 year coal phase out calls for only 2037 MW of generation retirement by 2019. And yet we currently have over 2800 MW of new NG generation approved or proposed.
So even with growing electricity demand, the “dash for gas” leaves no room for energy efficiency or renewable energy. No room for energy sources that emit zero greenhouse gases, zero air pollution, and will be integral to safeguarding our children’s future.
We need a plan. We first need to pick our targets for renewable energy (proposing 20% for 2020) and energy efficiency (proposing 10% for 2020), and further targets beyond. And only then look to supplement our grid with natural gas for the remaining generation requirements. Furthermore, we should consider the most energy efficient ways of burning natural gas, such as combined heat and power for commercial and residential facilities, and co-generation for industry.
Climate disruption is rapidly worsening, and there is a real financial risk that these stand-alone natural gas power plants will become stranded assets in time, never reaching their 30-35 year projected lifespan. Our power utilities, fuel suppliers, and renewable energy investors must work together to be part of the solution. We need foresight, new thinking, and cooperation to make our way through the challenging years ahead.
Dr. Joe Vipond is an Emergency Physician in Calgary and a member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment