Alberta’s coal fired power debacle

Alberta’s coal fired power debacle

By Laura Bowman, Staff Counsel

In all the talk about GHGs and contaminants from oilsands, it is often overlooked how significant the known impacts of Alberta’s heavy reliance on coal fired power are, or how urgently we need to switch to other forms of electricity generation. Impacts from coal include mercury contamination, radiation, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, NO2 and greenhouse gases (22% of Alberta’s GHG emissions).  The data show that absent strict controls coal is the most harmful form of electricity available, with among the most obvious and well-researched environmental and health impacts of any source.

Alberta uses seven coal fired power plants producing about 6000 MW of electricity.  Instead of phasing out coal-fired power Alberta is expanding its coal fired power use with a new coal fired plant scheduled to be commissioned in the first part of this year. In fact, in the deregulated electricity system in Alberta, generators of all kinds are encouraged and the lowest-cost energy is able to compete, regardless of environmental impacts.  Alberta is virtually powerless under current legislation to prioritize lower impact energy.

Even when Alberta regulators do regulate coal fired power plants it isn’t clear that there is a long-term commitment to reducing impacts.  Recently, Capital Power applied to reduce its commitment to GHG emission reduction at one facility.  The regulator has not yet decided whether to allow this.

Similarly, although Alberta put in in mercury capture requirements, it has delayed fully applying them.  Operators submitted proposals to meet a 70% mercury capture requirement in 2007.  Tests of these proposals showed that as much as 95% of mercury could be removed from Alberta coal plant emissions.  The proposals must be implemented by coal plants as of January 1, 2011.  However, no limits to mercury emissions have been set under the regulation.  Mercury in waterways harms fish and makes many of the fish in Alberta’s waterways unsuitable for consumption, particularly by women and children.

Former Federal Environment Minister Prentice tabled a plan last year to force power companies to close coal-fired facilities as they reach the end of their commercial life, largely over the next 10 to 15 years, unless these facilities used carbon capture and storage.  Indeed, one of the few viable uses for carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies is for coal fired power, not oilsands.  A better option to reduce emissions is to shut down coal plants.  Ontario is phasing out coal fired power, while the US takes steps to address issues like radiation in coal ash.

Alberta is ignoring the changing winds on coal fired power.  To address its coal habit, Alberta needs to reform legislation to allow comprehensive electricity generation planning.   At a minimum, it should account for the broader costs of coal in tariff rates paid to coal generators.  Given the seriousness of the impacts, if the facilities will not be replaced soon Alberta needs to impose mercury and other emissions controls urgently. 

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4 Comments
  • Chrisvallee Greenparty
    Posted at 21:27h, 17 January Reply

    The lack of planning and proper regulation in regards to power generation not only has immediate health consequences for Albertans by encouraging coal fire power plants but also more long lasting consequences as a result of climate change.

  • Links of the Week - Alberta's coal fired debacle, the promise of distributed generation and much, much more - Sustainability Nerd
    Posted at 10:20h, 25 January Reply

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  • Duncan Kinney
    Posted at 17:38h, 18 January Reply

    Thank you for writing this article. You are indeed correct and this issue needs to get brought up more than it does.

    This is an easily addressable issue that we simply ignore.

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