At a recent Rural Municipalities Association (RMA) spring convention in downtown Edmonton, Premier Danielle Smith proclaimed, "This is a natural gas basin. We are a natural gas province and we will continue to build natural gas power plants because that is what makes sense in Alberta."
It should come as no surprise that Smith is not a supporter of renewable energy. In 2021, she published an opinion piece in the Calgary Herald where she made a number of factual errors while implying that wind turbines were the cause of a massive weather-related power outage in Texas. The premier would like us to believe we can’t trust renewable energy in Alberta.
A detailed analysis of the crisis by experts at the University of Texas at Austin revealed that wind generating capacity decreased by 3,700 MW during the worst day of the storm, slightly higher than the generating capacity lost from coal generation. The natural gas generating capacity decreased by 13,000 MW, which meant coal and natural gas accounted for nearly 80 per cent of the power outage.
Smith incorrectly stated that if Texas had built more natural gas capacity instead of wind energy, the outage would’ve been much less severe. The University of Texas report clearly identified that the failure of natural gas generating capacity was from losses in natural gas production due to extreme cold and frozen gas pipelines. More gas turbines would not have made any difference. It was a natural gas supply and transmission issue.
There were other factors contributing to the severity of the outage, such as most of the Texas electricity grid being isolated from the grids of neighbouring states, which prevented importing electricity to compensate for lost power generation. There were also outages in the electrical transmission system and substations due to storm conditions and a weather-related spike in demand.
It was also noted that Texas wind energy operators had installed turbines that weren’t rated for severe weather conditions. Despite this, they recovered quickly as the weather improved. The report states, “The peak capacity of outages, relative to the time when the plants first experienced freezing temperatures, was approximately six days for natural gas plants, five days for coal plants, one day for wind turbines, and three days for solar generators.”
Smith clearly believes that Alberta must choose between renewable energy and reliable energy. But she seems to be confusing reliability with the intermittent nature of wind and solar. It’s true solar is only available during daylight hours and the wind isn’t always blowing in southern Alberta where the majority of wind farms are located. But the availability of wind and solar is entirely predictable and can be accommodated with grid storage and readily available generating capacity from other sources.
In Alberta, we’re used to winter temperatures below -30 C and our energy systems are designed to handle the environment in which they operate. Just before Christmas, the Alberta Electrical System Operator (AESO) announced two consecutive grid alerts due to extremely cold temperatures, seasonally high demand and an unexpected outage at the Keephills 3 coal-fired generating station. Albertans were asked to reduce their energy consumption and no outages resulted from the incident. Wind and solar did not impact reliability under these extreme-cold conditions.
Alberta is blessed with an abundance of sunshine and some would say cursed with too much wind. Conditions are ideal for renewable energy and the industry is booming. AESO reports that 12,600 MW of solar, 9,100 MW of wind and 5,556 MW of energy storage capacity are under construction, approved by the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) or announced. According to AESO, “Alberta is attracting significant private investment in renewables generation and energy storage projects, estimated at more than $4 billion since 2019.”
The renewable energy industry is booming in Alberta and this is a clear indicator that the market is signalling abundant future demand for clean electricity, writes Rob Miller @winexus #SolarEnergy #GreenTransition #abpoli #AbLeg #ClimateCrisis
Should Albertans be concerned as the maximum generating capacity of renewables blows past 30 per cent of the province’s total generating capacity? The total generating capacity is currently over 18,000 MW with 28,000 MW of renewable energy capacity in the queue. This may seem illogical when electricity demand isn’t increasing at that scale. What is going on?
When renewable energy is available, excess energy can be stored and the output from fossil fuel generation can be reduced. While renewable energy is supplying the grid, then Alberta’s CO2 emissions are reduced significantly. When the sun is down and the wind is low, the existing natural gas generating capacity will keep the lights on. However, when large amounts of wind generation are spread across different regions, the availability of renewable supply becomes more stable.
Because wind and sunshine resources are predictable, it is feasible to respond to the intermittent availability of renewable energy. Moving forward, generating capacity from geothermal, hydro, grid storage and even nuclear may some day replace the remaining natural gas generation in Alberta. This can happen more slowly as existing natural gas infrastructure reaches end of life.
Technically speaking, there is nothing preventing Alberta from transitioning to a much cleaner electricity grid in the near term and a 100 per cent renewable grid before 2050. As renewables are built out at a fantastic pace, the generating capacity is being scooped up by Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), like the one signed between Amazon and Greengate Power Corp. of Calgary.
Smith’s assertion that Alberta needs to build more natural gas generating capacity only serves the natural gas industry. Utilities are happy to add renewable energy. There is local support for clean energy, an international PPA market and renewables meet corporate net-zero commitments. Smith’s vision for more natural gas generating capacity will result in unwanted and unprofitable infrastructure that ultimately will lead to higher energy costs for Albertans.
The renewable energy industry is booming in Alberta and this is a clear indicator that the market is signalling abundant future demand for clean electricity. Some politicians will attempt to create a false narrative that demand for wind and solar can’t survive without a support from a carbon tax. In fact, it is natural gas electricity generation with the exorbitant added cost of carbon capture and storage that will be uncompetitive and heavily subsidized by taxpayers.
Rob Miller is a retired systems engineer, formerly with General Dynamics Canada, who now volunteers with the Calgary Climate Hub and writes on behalf of Eco-Elders for Climate Action.