Alberta recently announced plans to nearly triple the amount of climate-safe energy the province produces by 2030. That's a big jump. But over those same years, Alberta plans to increase the production of climate-damaging energy by fifty times more than that.

Here's a chart that lets you compare Alberta's clean and dirty energy plans. The black bars show current energy production in both renewables and bitumen oil (a.k.a. oilsands). Expansion plans for renewables are shown in green and bitumen in orange.

Alberta energy production. Clean renewable energy production vs dirty bitumen energy production
Alberta energy production: All values in Terawatt hours (TWh) per year. Black = current production. Orange & Green = planned additions. Chart by Barry Saxifrage at VisualCarbon.org and NationalObserver.com.

As the chart shows, Alberta plans to increase dirty energy production (bitumen) by 800 terawatt hours per year (TWh). That's the fat orange bar.

Over the same fifteen years, Alberta plans to increase clean energy production (renewables) by 14 TWh/year. That's the very thin green bar. At that rate, it would take Alberta more than 850 years to increase clean energy production to match the dirty increase.

To enable Alberta's 50-to-1 dirty energy expansion, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently approved two pipelines despite bitter opposition from many in their path. In his announcement he praised Alberta for helping lead the "transition to a clean energy economy" and a cleaner future for our kids.

The numbers above, however, show that Alberta is prioritizing a dirty energy economy.

If successful, Alberta's economy will be dependent on far more dirty energy in 2030 than it is today. Alberta is already struggling to kick the dependency on climate polluting energy. Just imagine how much harder it will be in 2030 when the economy requires vastly larger production levels of bitumen to function. Economists call this trap "carbon entanglement," and warn that it's a major impediment to building a climate-safe future.

The clean energy numbers

  • 8 TWh. That's how much the province currently generates each year in renewable energy. It's the barely visible black bar in the chart. Half comes from wind. The rest is split between hydro and biomass.
  • 14 TWh. Alberta's new Renewable Electricity Program recently set a target of adding five gigawatts of renewable capacity by 2030. Once completed this will produce around 14 TWh per year.1 Wind appears likely to make up most of the new clean energy production since it is currently the lowest-priced electricity on their grid.2 Plus, the province has loads of untapped wind potential.
  • 14 MtCO2. Alberta's push to increase clean energy is a key part of its high-profile climate policy to replace coal-fired electricity. The clean energy planned would be enough to replace two big coal power plants with combined emissions of 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year (MtCO2).3 For context, Alberta currently emits 275 MtCO2.

The dirty energy numbers

  • 1,500 TWh. Alberta currently produces 865 million barrels per year. That much oil contains 1,500 TWh of energy.4
  • 800 TWh. Alberta plans to increase bitumen production by 475 million barrels per year. That's an additional 800 TWh of energy.4
  • 40 MtCO2. Bitumen is a tar-like form of fossil carbon that is considered one of the world's most climate polluting sources of oil. The increased climate pollution in Canada from extracting all that new bitumen would be over 40 MtCO2.5
  • 285 MtCO2. The full climate impact from producing and then using all that new bitumen would be around 285 MtCO2.5 That's equivalent to emissions from 44 big coal power plants.6
  • Beyond 2030. Alberta plans to keep increasing bitumen production levels beyond 2030. In fact, there is no plan to reduce dirty energy production, ever.

The path to a safe climate

In contrast, the path to a safe climate future requires that oil production start falling. That's according to the International Energy Agency's (IEA) 2°C Scenario. Here's a chart comparing that safe path to Alberta's plans:

Alberta oil production plans vs IEA 2C Scenario
Alberta vs IEA 2C SCENARIOS -- Alberta oil plans from CAPP "Crude Oil Forecast 2016." International Energy Agency's (IEA) 2°C Scenario in the 2016 Energy Technology Perspectives data set. Chart by Barry Saxifrage at VisualCarbon.org and NationalObserver.com

Plan B for 2C?

So far, Alberta has worked to maximize bitumen production. And yet the bitumen economy is struggling. Bitumen jobs and government revenues from bitumen have fallen sharply. Amazingly this economic crisis has unfolded during a time when both bitumen production and global emissions have continued to rise. Just imagine what the economy will look like when global climate emissions start falling instead.

Despite that risk, Alberta's response has been to dramatically increase the bet on bitumen. As shown above, the province plans to increase their dirty energy bet by 50-to-1 over clean energy.

If humanity chooses to save itself from a full-blown climate crisis then the resulting fall in oil production is not going to be kind to the dirtiest varieties, like bitumen. Being dependent on ever larger flows of it might not end well. Instead it will be the economies rich in climate-safe energy, like renewables, that will be primed for low-carbon prosperity.

Footnotes

  1. WIND ENERGY GENERATION.
    According to the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) wind power in Alberta had an annual capacity factor of 32.5% last year (pdf).
    At that rate, 5 GW of wind power would produce 14.2 TWh in a year. The math: 5 GW * 365 days * 24 hours * 0.325 capacity factor = 14.2 TWh/year
  2. WIND PRICING.
    The AESO said the average wholesale cost for wind-powered electricity was 2.23 cents per kWh last year. That was by far the cheapest form of electricity on their grid (pdf).
  3. COAL PLANT EQUIVALENTS FROM RENEWABLES.
    Coal-fired power plants in Alberta average around 1 MtCO2 in emissions per 1 TWh of electricity generation. Replacing 14 TWh of coal with 14 TWh of renewables would therefore reduce emissions by roughly 14 MtCO2.
  4. ENERGY PER BARREL.
    US EIA says a barrel of oil contains ~1,700 kWh in energy. That's 5.8 million BTU for fans of those units. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers "2016 Crude Oil Forecast" says Alberta's bitumen industry plans to increase production 1.3 million barrels a day by 2030. That's 475 million barrels a year. At 1,700 kWh of energy per barrel it adds up to 807 TWh/year. Existing production is 2.37 million barrels a day = 865 million barrels per year = 1,500 TWh per year.
  5. CO2 PER BARREL.
    Environment Canada estimates 90 kgCO2 is emitted to extract each barrel of bitumen. A study by Oil Change International estimates 520 kgCO2 is released when each barrel of bitumen is burned. That's approximately 600 kgCO2/bbl in total. The planned increase of 475 million barrels a year will have lifecycle emissions of 285 MtCO2.
  6. COAL PLANT EQUIVALENTS FROM BITUMEN.
    Big coal-fired power plants average around 1 GW in generation capacity. AESO says coal plants in Alberta average around 75% capacity factor, so that 1 GW plant would produce ~6.5 TWh per year. Math: 1 GW * 0.75 * 365 * 24 = 6.5 TWh/year. As discussed above coal-fired power plants produce approximately 1 MtCO2 per 1 TWh. So I used 6.5 MtCO2/year to represent a "big coal plant". The 285 MtCO2 per year in new bitumen is therefore roughly equivalent to 44 "big coal plants" emitting 6.5 MtCO2 each.

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