OPINION | Alberta’s shift away from coal energy is a local weather motion success story | CBC Information

OPINION | Alberta's shift away from coal power is a climate action success story | CBC News

This column is an opinion from Andrew Leach, an power and environmental economist on the College of Alberta, and Blake Shaffer, an assistant professor of economics and public coverage on the College of Calgary.

If Rachel Notley had stood on the rostrum in 2015 saying her authorities’s signature local weather change insurance policies and declared that “by 2020, we’ll use 50 per cent much less coal energy than we use immediately,” she would possible have been heckled off the stage.

“It may well’t be finished!” they’d have mentioned. “The lights will exit! Prices will soar! Booooo!”

Quick ahead to 2020 and right here we’re. Take a look at us. 

Coal energy has plummeted in Alberta. As soon as the spine of the province’s electrical energy system, coal now provides roughly one-quarter of Alberta’s electrical energy.

(Blake Shaffer)

So how did we get right here? And what are the results of coal’s demise?

Earlier than we go additional, some disclosures: Each of us have labored extensively on local weather and electrical energy insurance policies affecting Alberta’s market. Leach chaired Alberta’s local weather management panel, chargeable for most of the modifications we’re discussing immediately, and now we have each suggested governments in Edmonton and in Ottawa on electricity-related issues earlier than and since 2015. Shaffer additionally held a senior buying and selling place at TransAlta, Alberta’s largest electrical energy generator, from 2010 to 2013.

Now, again to what occurred to coal.

Two phrases: carbon pricing

Alberta has had carbon pricing on its giant emitters since 2007, making us the primary jurisdiction in North America with a carbon value. That coverage, the Specified Fuel Emitters Regulation, or SGER, inspired emitters — be they an influence plant, an oilsands venture or a pulp mill — to scale back their emissions depth by 12 per cent.

Amenities which didn’t meet this discount would pay a value of $15 per tonne for emissions in extra of that baseline, whereas amenities which outperformed might accumulate emissions credit that might be bought or saved for future years.

For a typical coal energy plant, this coverage added roughly $2 per megawatt-hour to their common prices of technology. (For context, a typical energy value in Alberta is roughly $60 per megawatt-hour.) Nobody actually anticipated this is able to change behaviour or alter the electrical energy panorama in Alberta.

That each one modified in 2015. 

In a collection of annual modifications, the carbon value was elevated, finally hitting $30 per tonne in 2017, whereas on the identical time the baseline without spending a dime emissions credit was diminished. However a way more important change occurred in 2018 when the SGER was changed by a brand new giant emitter scheme. 

The brand new scheme, Carbon Competitiveness Incentive Regulation (or CCIR for many who take pleasure in their local weather coverage acronyms), modified how the baseline without spending a dime emissions credit was set.

Moderately than facility-specific allocations, which supplied extra safety to traditionally dirtier amenities, the brand new scheme set a typical baseline for all electrical energy turbines on the emissions depth of an environment friendly mixed cycle pure gasoline plant. Dirtier amenities would pay extra, cleaner ones would profit. 

The impact of this coverage change was substantial for coal crops. Their carbon prices, beforehand round $2 per megawatt-hour in 2015, elevated to just about $20. Whereas, probably the most environment friendly pure gasoline crops within the province noticed their carbon prices truly lower barely, and low-emission technology got here out additional forward, receiving the now higher-valued emissions discount credit.

On the identical time, falling pure gasoline costs additional elevated the price benefit of pure gasoline over coal as a gas for energy technology.  

The tip consequence? Since 2015, a number of coal crops have retired whereas those who stay are operating a lot much less typically, producing on common lower than 50 per cent of their functionality.

When the UCP got here to energy in 2019, though they changed CCIR with their very own giant emitter scheme (TIER — the acronyms by no means cease!), it was a change in title just for the electrical energy sector — they left the small print of the NDP coverage unchanged.

All advised, coal is now all the way down to roughly 1 / 4 of Alberta’s electrical energy provide.

(Blake Shaffer)

Along with carbon pricing, the Notley-era 2030 coal phase-out regulation can also be taking part in an vital position, partially due to the way it was imposed. In 2016, the Alberta authorities agreed to compensate coal plant house owners for the regulatory shutdown to the tune of roughly $95 million per yr over 14 years.

Whilst you may not like the thought of compensation, it purchased sturdiness and created a coalition of the prepared. Moderately than preventing their demise, coal turbines turned to the longer term, armed with {dollars} to finance clear energy tasks.

When the federal government modified, many — possible together with Premier Jason Kenney — thought the coal phase-out can be reversed. As an alternative, there was little or no urge for food by business to surrender their coal compensation agreements whereas nonetheless dealing with low pure gasoline costs, carbon pricing and federal coal phase-out laws.

The compensation, together with overlapping insurance policies and poor market situations, supplied a defence in depth towards a coal resurgence. 

The implications

Let’s begin with the great.

In 2015, GHG emissions from Alberta’s electrical energy sector have been 47 megatonnes (MT). By 2018, the newest yr of official statistics, that quantity had already fallen to 33 MT. With the accelerating decline in coal technology, we estimate that Alberta’s electrical energy system emissions will likely be roughly 25 MT for 2020 — down practically 50 per cent since 2015.

Alberta’s coal phase-out is a local weather motion success story. 

Aren’t we going to pay for this with greater costs?

Alberta’s energy costs are set by aggressive market forces, so the reply as to whether costs will go up because of these modifications is sophisticated.

Low pure gasoline costs, lower-than-expected demand development attributable to difficult financial situations, and a few new energy plant building has led to decrease costs than may in any other case have been the case. Moderately than coal’s decline inflicting greater costs, it’s possible that decrease market costs have prompted among the accelerated exit of coal crops. 

We definitely haven’t seen excessive costs since coal technology began to say no quickly. A number of the lowest energy costs in Alberta’s historical past have been seen in 2016 and 2017, and the three years since have seen costs barely under 15-year common costs, even with out adjusting for inflation.

(Blake Shaffer)

It is maybe too early to guage the long-term impact of Alberta’s coal phase-out on costs, however futures markets presently present no signal of great anticipated will increase.

As coal crops retire and the economic system recovers from COVID-19, much less complete provide might result in the beforehand feared spike in costs, however that appears unlikely.

The market is responding to the coal phase-out, and tasks just like the recently-announced Cascades pure gasoline plant, the conversion of a number of coal crops to run on pure gasoline, Suncor’s (now-delayed) cogeneration growth, and substantial new wind and photo voltaic technology counsel that Alberta will stay well-supplied with cheap costs for years to come back.

There have been prices concerned with phasing out coal. The transition funds paid to the house owners of the coal crops may appear giant, nevertheless it quantities to roughly one fifteenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour.

This value would not present up in your energy payments; it’s borne by the federal government straight. However that does not make it any much less actual. Nonetheless, it stays a small fraction of the price of delivered energy.

The unprofitable Energy Buy Preparations that have been returned to the federal government within the wake of coverage modifications made in 2015 additionally got here with giant complete prices, however they’ve solely added roughly $2 per thirty days to a typical family’s invoice.

Importantly, these prices have occurred as a result of costs have been low. Had costs spiked as some had predicted, these contracts would have confirmed profitable!

The Alberta authorities additionally entered into contracts with renewable power producers however, regardless of low costs, the low strike value of those contracts have seen the federal government come out, up to now, barely forward, as soon as the worth of emissions discount credit are taken under consideration.

In no sense are Albertans paying considerably extra for energy due to the modifications we have seen within the technology combine.

Did not we simply exchange our coal energy with imported coal energy?

No. Alberta’s electrical energy market is comparatively remoted, and we do not have the capability to import sufficient electrical energy to compensate for the lower in coal technology. Energy imports have elevated from 2016 lows, however nonetheless represent solely 5 per cent of Alberta’s complete provide.

(Blake Shaffer)

The notion that energy imports are soiled can also be a misnomer. Most of Alberta’s 1,200-megawatt import capability hyperlinks us to British Columbia’s clear, hydro-electric system.

Our complete import capability from comparatively emissions-intensive markets in Saskatchewan (153 MW) and Montana (300 MW) is barely bigger than our largest coal plant. And even in these locations, emissions intensities are falling. Like in Alberta, Montana’s coal share is on the decline, and its quickest rising supply of electrical energy provide is wind energy. 

Prices of the power transition

As we have a good time the decline in emissions that comes with the shuttering of coal energy crops, we should not ignore the communities hardest hit by these modifications.

Lots of Alberta’s communities are deeply tied to coal and, as crops shut, there will likely be jobs misplaced and companies shuttered. The fast decline in coal technology dangers outrunning any authorities plans for a simply transition.

The impacts on these communities will likely be magnified by the broad malaise in Alberta’s economic system.

With all the eye centered on job losses within the service and oil and gasoline sectors because of the mixed results of the pandemic and the oil value crash, we should not lose sight of the structural modifications affecting communities like Hanna, Keephills, and Forestburg. 


Alberta’s shift away from coal energy must be probably the most talked-about local weather coverage story in Canada immediately. That it is occurred with out the massive will increase in costs or considerations concerning reliability that have been so loudly predicted 5 years in the past is all of the extra exceptional.

The market can transfer shortly when insurance policies present clear value indicators and create alternatives for brand spanking new entrants to take the place of incumbents and for brand spanking new know-how to exchange the outdated.

This column is an opinion. For extra details about our commentary part, please learn our FAQ.

Supply hyperlink

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.