In a sign Ottawa is moving ahead on its Atlantic Loop plans, Environment and Climate Change Canada confirmed it is denying New Brunswick’s request to run its Belledune coal plant past 2030.

Floated in the Liberal Party’s 2019 platform, the Atlantic Loop is a policy that ties Atlantic Canada’s power grids together to enable hydropower to flow from Quebec and Labrador into the Maritimes to offset coal-fired power plants.

Meanwhile, Belledune is the heaviest-emitting power plant in Atlantic Canada based on 2019 greenhouse gas emissions data, spewing roughly 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions that year. It’s New Brunswick’s second largest emitter next to the Irving Oil refinery, which created about 2.9 million tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution in 2019.

Despite the federal government’s goal of phasing out “traditional” coal-fired electricity generation by 2030, earlier this year, New Brunswick announced it was pursuing an equivalency agreement with the federal government that would keep Belledune running to 2040. The province wanted to keep the plant going because Crown utility NB Power is struggling under a mountain of debt, and the coal plant has a design life that extends past 2030, meaning to close it earlier adds to the utility’s financial costs.

The province estimated closing in 2030 would force electricity rates to jump 12 to 17 per cent in 2030 and require the build-out of new power generation to replace it, citing this as justification to keep the plant operating.

“Our government is fully committed to phasing out coal-fired electricity by 2030 in all parts of the country, including in New Brunswick,” said ECCC spokesperson Gabriel Brunet.

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs reportedly wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in October requesting Ottawa make at least $5 billion available to help New Brunswick and Nova Scotia phase out coal power.

“We’re pleased to see recent comments by the New Brunswick government that they are also looking to accelerate the phase-out (of) coal in the province and partner with the federal government on the Atlantic Loop,” said Brunet.

Who is still burning coal?

Louise Comeau, director of climate and energy with the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, called the federal confirmation Belledune will close by 2030 “absolutely huge,” adding it’s a signal to other provinces about pursuing signing equivalency agreements.

The feds say New Brunswick's Belledune coal plant will officially close by 2030. That will require major investments in new energy and is a likely sign #AtlanticLoop investments are on the way. #cdnpoli #nbpoli

“I think what really sealed the deal for New Brunswick was that Nova Scotia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, all of whom have several coal plants — not one, like we do — all said they were going to comply,” said Comeau.

“Once you've got those three provinces saying they'll comply it makes it a lot easier for (Ottawa) to say, ‘No, we're not extending to this one outlier,’” she added.

Coal makes up more than 60 per cent of Nova Scotia’s electricity generation, coming from plants like Linga, Trenton, Point Aconi and other generating stations. New Brunswick, on the other hand, gets approximately 40 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, 30 per cent from fossil fuels, including coal, 20 per cent from hydro and the remainder from wind and biomass.

Based on the most recent data from Canada’s Energy Regulator, Alberta gets 49 per cent of its electricity from burning natural gas, 43 per cent from coal and the rest from renewables. Saskatchewan is marginally better, with 43 per cent of its electricity from natural gas, 40 per cent from coal and the rest from renewables.

Among Canada’s 100 top emitters are coal-fired plants in these four provinces. Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam and Poplar River power stations, both owned by Crown utility SaskPower, were the province’s two heaviest-emitting coal plants in 2019, pumping more than five million tonnes and 3.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, respectively, into the atmosphere. In Alberta, the heaviest-emitting coal and natural gas power plants were the Genesee Thermal Generating Station, owned by Capital Power, and the Keephills plant, owned by TransAlta. Genesee emitted more than 8.8 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2019, while Keephills released more than 7.6 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

National grid

Co-ordinating the phaseout of fossil fuels will take leadership from the federal government, and Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May says closing Belledune shows why.

“One of the key things this Belledune shutdown should include is moving on establishing an east-west electricity grid, and building up where the interties are a problem,” she said, acknowledging the jurisdictional challenges of provinces having responsibility for electricity generation at the same time federal policies require steep emission cuts.

Still, “making the grid interconnect between provinces is also a key way to ensure that we can use the grid like a giant battery,” she added.

When the sun’s not shining and the wind’s not blowing, the options to keep electricity flowing in a post-fossil fuel world are to rely on reliable sources of generation like hydro dams, battery technologies to store renewable power or far-reaching power grids that can move electrons from where they can be generated to where they’re needed. In Canada, it’s more common for power grids to be stitched north-south with American markets than east-west, where transmission lines would have to span greater distances to reach fewer people.

Phasing out coal power requires long-term energy planning to figure how exactly that electricity will be replaced.

“We need to take this chance to also democratize energy more so that each community, to the greatest extent possible, has solar panels on every roof, has wind turbines in every appropriately sited place, benefits from geothermal wherever possible and feeds it into a grid that takes the energy to where it’s needed,” said May.

Atlantic premiers are interested in the federal Atlantic Loop plan in part because it shifts the cost of decarbonizing off their books, said Comeau.

“The Atlantic Loop is a major infrastructure investment project. There's so much that's got to be done in terms of community consultation and investments and building transmission lines that run through an entire province in less than eight years,” she said.

Comeau explained that because New Brunswick is unlikely to do all the work needed to build the Atlantic Loop by 2030, the province will probably need to add renewable power generation to its mix in the interim instead of banking on being able to import power from other provinces. However, the federal government is aiming for an emissions-free power grid by 2035, of which the Atlantic Loop would play an essential part.

“This conversation needs to have started ages ago under (the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) to talk about free, prior and informed consent on the routing” of the Atlantic Loop, said May.

“It is a big project, it will employ a lot of people, it will modernize Canada; it's an essential piece of reducing our emissions fast, and to do this we need to work with good federal-provincial co-operation,” she said. “But I think it needs to be announced what the vision is, and why it’s critical so there's national public opinion in favour of getting this right, so if one recalcitrant utility says no, there's a public response that says come on, we have to function like a country.”

Conservative climate shadow minister Dan Albas said the federal government should work collaboratively with provinces.

“Provinces know the energy makeup that fits them best, and it’s time the federal government came to the table to support them in the path to make this happen,” he said in a statement.

A recent report from Clean Energy Canada stressed the need for the country to ramp up renewable production and build a national power grid in order to meet emission reduction targets and prepare for a greener global economy.

According to a meeting note Canada’s National Observer received through a federal access-to-information request, over the past 15 years, annual capital spending on electricity generation, transmission and distribution has “hovered in the $20-$25 billion/year range.”

That same note, prepared for Natural Resource Canada officials, recognizes the importance of increasing clean energy generation and notes there are lessons to be learned from Atlantic Loop progress that could aid other “electrification initiatives.”

John Woodside / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer

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And why is NB Power struggling under a mountain of debt? The linked CBC article says "NB Power was hit by a series of expensive natural and man-made problems during the last year, the worst of which was a dead-of-winter breakdown of the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station that knocked the plant offline for 40 days in the peak consumption months of January and February."

Nuclear is a very complex and expensive way to boil water. But it's emission-free in operations and can be complemented by renewables, both centralized and distributed. It would be better for the climate in the case of NB to fix the nuclear plant, then cancel coal with wind, solar, imported hydro and large-scale storage waiting in the wings to take its place.

"“We need to take this chance to also democratize energy more so that each community, to the greatest extent possible, has solar panels on every roof, has wind turbines in every appropriately sited place, benefits from geothermal wherever possible and feeds it into a grid that takes the energy to where it’s needed,” said [Elizabeth] May."
Yes! An intelligent grid that buys energy from everyone that can make it and shares it back out to everyone that needs it, when they need it. The price is right! And it is really the only way to "Electrify Everything".

Indeed.

Elizabeth May has a very well informed view of electrification with an eye cast deep into the future.

I completely agree that an east-west smart grid with several interties within each province would be one of the most beneficial projects designed for the challenges of this century. It is essential to maintain federal jurisdiction over the corridor in the 'national interest.'

That phrase was used incessantly for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project when BC took it to the Supreme Court of Canada, but lost to the churlish glee of Rachel Notley, Jason Kenney and well-oiled industry-supportive media merely on a technicality: the simple federal right to cross provincial boundaries with any project it pleases.

Let's disregard all the other issues, like BC's ownership of the seabed and coast under and surrounding all inland seas (comprising the entire tanker route), local jurisdiction's permitting processes, the Constitutional rights of Indigenous people, the shared environmental management and remediation responsibilities, and the opposition by half the population of the coast. Not to mention the hypocrisy of buying and building a pipeline after first declaring a climate emergency and signing the soon-to-be doomed Paris Agreement.

So, let's turn the tables on the self-imagined petro provinces and run a 300 m wide very high capacity intelligent clean energy corridor right through both their east and west boundary lines with a dozen or so intertie points within them. All provinces in a National Climate Plan / Energy Corridor would be treated equally, all with the national interest in mind. No legitimate legal challenge can be mounted to the project by any province for crossing a provincial boundary, based on the facts of the SCC ruling on TMX.

You've got enough room for a parallel double-tracked high speed rail corridor too. And probably enough left over space for regional commuter rail, fibre optic conduits and wireless communications infrastructure to boot. It's not just about electricity, contrary to what some provinces may say to try to quash the project based on provincial jurisdiction over electricity. If they challenge that, then the feds may simply ask, Do you want federal funds for transportation, communications and other job and tax generators or not? If "not", then build the corridor anyway, run high tension cables through, rough out but don't meter the interties, and connect to the two adjacent provinces and the US border (for export profits), and wait for the economic benefits to become highly visible, such as Quebec and New Brunswick able to sell power to California, or the Prairies to send high-profit power to the US Eastern Seaboard.

The corridor interties would be Net Metered, meaning renewable electricity could be both bought and sold through the two-way meters to / from a National Power Corporation at an agreed on contractual price per kilowatt hour.

There are some great possibilities with this arrangement:

- With low impedance, high voltage direct current (HVDC) conductors, power can be transmitted great distances with just a ~3% loss per 1,000 km from line resistance, which becomes very dynamic when time zone rates are leveraged. BC could send power through the corridor to Toronto and Montreal peak morning peak periods at low early morning rates, and see 90+% of the power arrive intact within a split second or two.

- If the corridor infrastructure was built very stoutly, then Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada could help BC keep the lights on when environmental calamities like the notorious 2021 floods, heat domes or earthquakes strike. Ditto Prairie floods.

- If farmers, towns and First Nations within five km either side of the corridor were offered a reasonable long term indexed price per kw/h to connect their private wind and solar power generation systems to the grid, then the capacity for these renewables will expand to cover 1,000 square km for every 100 km of corridor, or 10,000 km2 for every 1,000 km of corridor. The huge generation capacity spread over 50,000+ km2 stretched across the nation could no doubt have a powerful influence to exceed Canada's potential energy and US export needs and demands to fully electrify the nation's economy primarily with wind and solar, backed by hydro, nuclear and hopefully a meaningful exploration of geothermal.

- The federal government would own the corridor and, with next generation storage tech now coming online, would be able to place very large-scale banks of iron-air, liquid metal or other non-lithium cobalt batteries at each intertie junction along with inverter and transformer stations. Thus, the entire grid would have literal battery storage nation-wide and also complex ties with provincial grids to have power available within seconds to meet demand anywhere on the grid and virtually anytime at a known price.

- The rate could be set for break even plus inflation operating cost recovery. Construction costs could be amortized over a very long time to keep daily operational costs reasonable, or simply written down in tranches as apart of a National Climate Plan, not unlike public healthcare expenditures. There are hundreds of billions of investment dollars in play by Canada's public pension funds that could also be used to spread the cost out, and possible offer reasonable lease arrangements. Unlike an immediate pandemic emergency, the grid infrastructure financial planning, budgets and construction timetables would be set years in advance (hopefully not beyond 2030) and revisited annually.

- A federal government in a hurry can delineate the corridor quickly between provinces with negotiations about management of the intertie connections to provincial grids later, which could drag on. Meanwhile, the focus on offering neighbouring private farms, towns and First Nations a guaranteed price for their clean power shouldn't receive too much flak from disagreeable petro provinces when so many jobs and additional provincial tax revenue streams are on the line. Moreover, the city of Medicine Hat AB has its own precedent-setting wind power farm, and First Nations aspirations will likely fall more in line with joining the national smart grid than having some ill-informed overly ideological premier try to shunt them aside.

Hopefully this sounds like the beginnings of a plan.