Climate experts are applauding a new plan to shift off coal on the East Coast, but say New Brunswick’s contributions aren’t as clean or reliable as they should be.
Last week, it was announced that the Atlantic Loop is being abandoned for now; instead, N.B. and Nova Scotia are pursuing a grid intertie that will allow the two provinces to trade power back and forth as needed. As of now, N.S. generates nearly 40 per cent of its power from coal and N.B. generates the same amount from nuclear, and 13 per cent from coal.
N.S. is focusing its efforts on clean energy sources and plans to build significant wind power to meet its emissions targets. And while one expert says more wind is a clear win, N.B.'s plan for its energy future raises red flags.
This week, the federal government announced support for the intertie along with funding for specific projects in both provinces to support them in getting off coal by 2030, as federally mandated. N.B. received $7 million towards the ARC Clean Technology Canada small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) at Point Lepreau and $2 million to help convert the Belledune coal-fired generating station to biomass, a process where waste wood is burned to create electricity.
Those two solutions are not as viable as N.S.’s plan for more renewable energy, said Moe Qureshi, manager of climate solutions with the Conservation Council of New Brunswick. SMRs, small nuclear power generators, are expensive and experimental, he notes. To date, not one has been manufactured. N.B.’s plan to switch from coal to biomass also raises concerns, Qureshi said.
There are two main issues with switching from coal to biomass, said Qureshi, who notes biomass is an inefficient energy source and contributes to forest degradation. While the federal government describes the fuel as renewable, research increasingly says the opposite — that burning waste wood for electricity produces more carbon dioxide emissions than the dirtiest fossil fuel: coal.
Canada’s National Observer reached out to the province of N.B. to ask where the fuel for the future biomass plant would come from and was referred to NB Power, the province’s Crown electrical utility. Spokesperson for NB Power Dominique Couture said the utility will be looking for “expressions of interest in the coming months” but that a recent assessment found there should be “sufficient waste fibre/stock” to support the switch.
New Brunswick is hinging much of its energy future on biomass and nuclear, while its neighbour Nova Scotia plans to build significant wind resources. An analysis piece with input from Moe Qureshi of @cc_nb
That doesn’t satisfy Qureshi. “When we talk about solving climate change, we simply have to stop burning things. If you have to burn something to generate electricity, you're not part of the solution, you're just creating more emissions.
“And I know some people think that ‘Hey, you can just regrow trees to recapture those emissions,’ but that's a 40-year lag time.”
The other major part of N.B.’s plan is an increased reliance on nuclear power. The province is home to Atlantic Canada’s only nuclear plant, Point Lepreau, which received a 10-year licence extension in 2022. At the end of the term, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission will have to hold hearings and decide on a future extension.
At public hearings in May, the Passamaquoddy, whose traditional territory includes Point Lepreau, suggested a three-year extension. Mi'kmaq First Nations group Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn Incorporated requested a five- to 10-year licence.
Qureshi said N.B. is hanging too much of its energy future on nuclear. He points to the unreliability of the nuclear plant, which has seen an increase in planned and unplanned outages, with a hefty price tag, and the cost of developing SMRs, along with the worry about them not being ready in time to address the immediate need to decarbonize.
NB Power spokesperson Couture said the utility isn’t concerned about the intertie relying on SMRs, and that even if there are delays, the utility has other energy scenarios that will enable the province to meet its energy targets.
“The intertie is important to strengthen the transmission system, enabling more electricity transfer to and from Nova Scotia,” she said.
“The source of that electricity can be anywhere in New Brunswick,” she added, and said the utility’s recent Integrated Resource Plan took into account potential delays in the deployment of SMRs and still concluded the province could meet coal phaseout goals.
One SMR is capable of generating up to 300 megawatts of power. Qureshi compares that to the 1,000 MW of wind that N.S. has committed to putting on the grid by 2030, along with the costs. Renewables like wind and solar are highlighted as being the cheapest forms of energy and although it’s hard to say how much SMRs will ultimately cost since they haven’t been built yet, their price tags are in the billions.
A 2015 report from the International Energy Agency and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency found electricity costs from SMRs are predicted to be 50 to 100 per cent higher than typical nuclear reactors.
The intertie will mean that N.S. and N.B. can trade energy when either place needs it, and eventually, export energy via existing lines from Point Lepreau to New England and Quebec. Qureshi said the plan will hopefully lead to lower electricity rates in N.S. and position the province to become a clean energy exporter, but could leave people in N.B. behind with higher energy bills and energy that is unreliable and emitting.
“... If all the money's just going towards [SMRs], that's a huge red flag,” said Qureshi, who added there has been no talk from the N.B. side about lowering electricity prices.