Within 20 years, Alberta could reduce its heavy reliance on fossil fuel energy and instead supply the province’s electricity mostly from clean and renewable energy. In doing so, the province would:
- Cut air and carbon pollution
- Improve air quality, leading to lower public health costs
- Reduce exposure to the economic and security risks that come with relying too heavily on a single fuel source and overly centralized power grid
- Kick–start a new industry
With effective policy, the province could cut the percentage of grid electricity that is supplied from coal energy from over 60 per cent today to less than four per cent by 2033. It can do this without simply throwing the switch over to natural gas, which is where the power sector is now headed. While natural gas burns cleaner than coal, it is also subject to price spikes and long–term price risks that can hurt customers. A large-scale shift to renewable power would reduce the electricity sector’s carbon pollution by 69 per cent relative to the wide-scale switch to natural gas power generation expected under business as usual.
Further, Alberta could make this major power shift without creating hiccups on the grid, and without hitting citizens and businesses hard in the pocketbook.
Though Alberta’s oilsands sector attracts a great deal of critical attention both at home and abroad, the province’s electricity sector generates almost the same quantity of carbon pollution. This is due, in large part, to the province’s continued reliance on coal. At present, Alberta burns more coal for electricity than all other provinces combined. On an annual basis, Alberta’s coal–fired electricity releases roughly the same quantity of greenhouse gases as half of all the passenger vehicles on the roads in the entire country, in addition to health– damaging sulphur and nitrogen oxides, mercury and particulate matter.
Fortunately, the solution is close at hand. Alberta enjoys some of Canada’s most abundant and reliable renewable energy resources—including 150 gigawatts (GW) of potential wind power, 11 GW of potential hydroelectricity, and 120 GW of potential demonstrated geothermal power (Canadian Wind Energy Association, 2013; Alberta Utilities Commission, 2010; Canadian Geothermal Energy Association,2013). As for solar photovoltaics, it would be possible to meet Alberta’s annual electrical energy needs with solar panels alone; doing so would require 1,746 km2—or0.26 per cent—of the province’s total land area (Kelly, 2014). Myriad opportunities also exist to use electricity much more efficiently.
In a variety of forums and media articles, the Government of Alberta continues to develop an Alternative and Renewable Energy Policy Framework—first suggested by an industry and NGO working group in 2005. In once again committing to the framework in early 2014, the province said the framework would empower consumers to exercise choice within the market–based electricity system.
Meaningful policy is badly needed. It could lower barriers to clean energy development and unlock opportunities to harvest the abundant and largely overlooked renewable resources that shine down, grow from, emerge from, flow over, and blow across the province.