Provincial gov’t policy changing future of prairie power

As the old Bob Dylan song goes, the times they are a-changing.

In terms of public policy, changes can be as dramatic as weather. Only months ago, Alberta elected a new government in the midst of a downturn in the oil economy.

Rachel Notley’s NDP government came up with a new plan regarding energy in Alberta, a plan that amazingly received public support from major oil industry players such as Canadian Natural Energy, Suncor, Cenovus and Shell, as well as from the indigenous leadership. Presumably this speaks to some effective negotiation skills, as well as a recognition by the oil industry and Alberta of the tarnished international image related to the oil sands.

The new Alberta program is intended to phase out coal-fired generation by 2030. Alberta now depends on coal for about 55 percent of its energy generation, so phasing that out over 15 years is ambitious.

Alberta is not the first province to phase out coal-fired power generation. Ontario has done so but they hold a joker in the power deck, nuclear power, which provides about 60 percent of Ontario’s power.

Alberta intends to replace coal-based power by increasing renewable energy generation and using more natural gas. Renewable energy is to provide two-thirds of the replacement power, most if it coming from wind power. Renewable energy currently represents only nine percent of Alberta’s power.

A new carbon tax will apply across the Alberta economy. There will be increased costs of carbon-based products and processes but it may lead to greater awareness and concern about energy usage and could result in lower per-capita energy demand as folks adapt.

And Alberta intends to use the carbon tax funds to encourage renewable energy development.

Meanwhile, Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall of the governing Saskatchewan Party, through Saskatchewan’s sole power provider, SaskPower, promised that by 2030,15 years from now, renewable energy would be 50 percent of the power mix. That’s way up from the previous 15 percent target and a far higher percentage than promised by Alberta.

Maybe it’s like the Grinch whose heart was two sizes too small and then one day saw the light of generosity.

In the case of Wall, was it Alberta’s pre-emptive promise or the fact that he was attending the Paris meeting on the environment? Was it a diversion from the highly touted carbon-capture project, which as a flagship project seems to be taking on water? Or is the fact that an election is taking place this spring.

To describe Saskatchewan’s increased target of 50 percent renewables within 15 years as ambitious is an understatement. It is either foolhardy or visionary. That target will be a challenge to meet. Much of the increase is to come from wind power, with a smaller contribution by solar and biomass.

It is notable that Saskatchewan does not indicate its use of coal will diminish in real terms by 2030, as it does not separate out coal (or coal with carbon capture) from natural gas in its published targets for 2030. They are all lumped together.

It is expected that the wind power installations will be like the big turbines at Gull Lake, Sask., and Pincher Creek, Alta. For small wind turbines, capital cost and cost of operation relative to the output is not favourable. The most likely way an individual will be involved in a wind project is as an investor.

Solar might be different. There is talk about major solar farms with SaskPower talking about major procurements. But they are also re-working their net-metering program for small producers. Hopefully, Saskatchewan and Alberta have the wisdom to encourage smaller solar installations.

Many individuals express the desire to install solar systems on their houses, garages, shops and barns and it makes sense that they be encouraged to participate.

Other jurisdictions such as the United States and Europe have made good use of the average person’s interest by providing financial incentives.

In the U.S., much has been done using grants and tax credits.

Ontario used the European feed-in tariff model that has a higher-than-regular-electric price per kilowatt-hour value for solar power delivered to the grid.

It is hoped that when Alberta and Saskatchewan create their regimes for accepting power to the grid, they weigh the benefits for those who install on roofs, the most logical place to put solar installations.

Most sensible are those installed on the multiple flat-roofed industrial and commercial buildings where there is lots of room and where power is frequently used in substantial amounts.

Six months is short time, but 15 years can roll by rather quickly too. It will be interesting to see if Alberta and Saskatchewan make good on their targets for renewable energy. Some of us can hardly wait.

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