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As the McMahon Stadium crowd waited for the kickoff of the Labour Day Classic, a Canadian Football League tradition, Calgary was shrouded in a thick smoke reminiscent of the smoggy coal town in Charles Dickens's novel, Hard Times.
The Air Quality Index was nine out of 10, hovering close to the very high-risk classification that might have caused the game to be cancelled. The amount of smoke in Calgary had just hit a record of 464 hours and counting — in a city that used to boast about its clean air and saw only 12 hours of smoke per summer.
Wildfires and evacuations are a constant reminder that climate change is having a negative impact on our environment and our lives. As the vast majority of climate scientists have predicted, air quality, heat and water shortage advisories are also on the rise.
Despite the dramatic changes to Calgary’s climate in just the last 10 years, many Albertans still struggle to accept the following statement from the United States Environmental Protection Agency: “Burning fossil fuels changes the climate more than any other human activity.”
An inability to accept the immediate need for transitioning to a cleaner global energy system creates a mindset that opposes renewable energy and redoubles support for a polluting industry that no longer has a promising future.
Albertans should be embracing the diversification provided by investment in renewable energy but, instead, our province is blocking community-led solar projects that will ultimately help reduce the impacts of climate change. At the same time, our government inequitably subsidizes fossil fuel corporations that are already profitable and mostly foreign-owned.
In Alberta and other Canadian provinces, the electricity system relies on baseload generators and reserve capacity designed to quickly add power during periods of peak demand or unexpected outages.
A recent grid alert in Alberta was the result of lost baseload capacity from natural gas generators combined with planned maintenance on the transmission lines interconnecting with British Columbia.
Premier Danielle Smith attempted to use the incident to falsely blame wind energy, despite the fact these grid alerts are infrequent and can generally be handled without any disruptions to Alberta’s power system.
Will Alberta’s electricity grid become unreliable as more renewable generating capacity is added? Denmark has answered this question with an electricity system that uses wind and solar energy to supply 60% of consumption, writes @winexus
According to the Alberta Electric System Operator’s (AESO) communications manager Leif Sollid, grid alerts can be resolved by “calling on Alberta-based generators to increase supply if possible; cancelling any transmission line maintenance that is hindering supply; suspending exports of electricity; requesting an increase in emergency imports from B.C., Montana and/or Saskatchewan; exercising voluntary load curtailment with large industrial customers with whom we have contracts to take this action; and making a public appeal via social media for Albertans to conserve energy.”
Despite AESO successfully integrating and managing rapidly growing renewable energy inputs, opponents of wind and solar power repeatedly question its reliability. Will Alberta’s electricity grid become unreliable as more renewable generating capacity is added?
Denmark has already answered this question with an electricity system that uses wind and solar energy to supply 60 per cent of the country’s electricity consumption. In Alberta, renewable sources currently supply about 17 per cent.
The key to Denmark’s success was building transmission lines that facilitate the export of electricity to neighbouring European Union countries. Wind and solar capacity can exceed Danish consumption with the added value of selling surplus electricity to external markets.
The Danes are also innovating to improve the capacity of their electrical system. Dynamic Line Rating is used to squeeze additional power over, depending on weather conditions. This way, more power can be delivered at night or on colder days.
Exporting electricity can be lucrative. When windy conditions make excess electricity, it can be sold to interconnected neighbours where local electricity costs are higher.
For example, the North Sea Link between Norway and the United Kingdom is the longest high-voltage, direct-current transmission line in the world. It allows cheaper U.K. wind energy to be sold to Norway when local natural gas prices are high or hydropower reservoirs are low. Conversely, Norway’s hydroelectricity can be sold to the U.K. when reservoirs are full and prices are low.
Denmark is completing its own transmission line to the U.K. later this year. Jesper Rasmussen of Energinet, Denmark’s electricity transmission system operator, explains, “Denmark has historically, due to its geographical place between the Nordic hydro-based power system and central Europe’s thermal systems, been a transit country with lots of import and export.”
A well-functioning EU power market allows Denmark to act as an electricity hub and creates an opportunity to sell Danish renewable electricity into much larger EU markets.
Alberta’s interconnection capacity includes an 800-megawatt (MW) intertie to British Columbia, 300 MW to Montana and 150 MW to Saskatchewan. The lack of a larger network of interconnections is a lost opportunity for Alberta to create wealth and jobs from its abundant wind and solar resources.
During peak hours, Denmark’s electricity consumption is approximately six gigawatts (GW), or about half of Alberta’s peak consumption. Danish interconnect lines can export/import up to 7.5 GW between other countries with the new U.K. interconnect adding another 1.4 GW of capacity and a new market.
Import capacity already exceeds Danish electricity consumption and over the next decade, renewable generating capacity will also greatly exceed domestic consumption. Denmark’s grid is stabilized by an abundance of generating capacity and interconnection options while trading excess capacity provides ongoing economic benefits.
Alberta has a long way to go. Interconnection capacity would have to increase tenfold and renewable generation more than triple to match the ambition of Denmark’s electricity system.
A report by the Pembina Institute stresses that a decarbonized grid is key to unlocking future economic opportunities in Alberta. It states, “We find that electricity exports soar with growth of renewables and increasing provincial export capacity, achieved through expansion of transmission connections to other jurisdictions (interties).”
Would it make sense for Alberta to export renewable energy to Montana where coal generates 42 per cent of the state’s electricity?
In Washington state, the Grand Coulee Dam produces 21 million megawatt hours of electricity each year and supplies eight western states and parts of Canada but recently, drought conditions have severely drained reservoirs in the West, creating conditions where cheaper electricity imports might be a welcome relief for strained hydro resources.
Transitioning to an energy system for the future is possible and well underway. Pattern Energy recently announced SunZia, a $10-billion wind farm and transmission line project between renewables in New Mexico and the electricity grid in Arizona. It is the largest clean-energy infrastructure project in U.S. history and is only a fraction of the cost of Canada’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.
Projects like SunZia and the booming wind and solar industry in Alberta are clear indicators that energy investors in North America are watching how the EU and China are evolving their electricity grids. This is the future of energy infrastructure. Canada’s oil and gas pipelines are destined to become relics of yesterday’s global economy.
Alberta is sitting on the world’s fourth-largest oil reserve and it is understandable that it will be difficult for people to accept that the oilsands won’t continue generating ever-increasing heaps of wealth.
We have to acknowledge the amount of change that is occurring right now — both in terms of worsening climate conditions and a global energy transformation. Failing to prepare Alberta’s economy and electricity system for a cleaner future is a recipe for wealth destruction and smoky skies.
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.