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Smiles and congratulations on a job well done. That was the scene as the UN climate conference COP28 wound up last December in Dubai. If celebration was warranted, the summit’s call to triple renewable electricity production by 2030 was one of its stronger justifications.

That is, unless you govern the petro-province of Alberta. Unbeknownst to many, Canada — not OPEC — is far and away the largest source of imported oil to the United States. Canada exports nearly 4.5 million barrels of oil per day to the U.S., the vast majority from the oilsands of Alberta. In 2022, Canada poured more than four times the oil into American markets than all the Persian Gulf states combined.

So, at COP28, the Alberta premier’s praise wasn’t for upping the global renewables game. It was reserved for the conference’s lukewarm recognition that burning fossil fuels causes global warming. Scorn accompanied this praise from Premier Danielle Smith. Federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault tried to toughen the fossil fuel language. For this, Smith portrayed him as treacherous, as a saboteur driven by “his misguided personal obsessions.” Taken together, these factors did nothing to shake Smith’s conviction that spectacular oilsands production growth must continue.

Alberta electricity generation: Climate-friendly, spectacular growth

In spite of the direction set by Smith, Alberta has enjoyed spectacular growth of a different kind: renewable electricity generation. While Smith celebrated more barrels of more GHG emissions-intensive Alberta crude pouring into American gas tanks, the province’s electricity industry continued to write a much more positive climate story. In just six years, from 2015 to 2021, the province cut GHG emissions from electricity generation by 50 per cent.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is letting ideology knock the wind out of a lucrative renewable business. #sustainability #CleanEnergy #RenewableEnergy #abpoli

In 2022, Rystad Energy predicted this dramatic trend would continue. Alberta would overtake Ontario as Canada’s largest producer of utility-scale wind and solar power by 2025.

Smith doesn’t care about Alberta becoming a green electricity leader. Last August, she stunned the renewable electricity industry by ordering the Alberta Utilities Commission to impose a moratorium until the end of February 2024 on all new approvals for utility-scale renewable energy power plants. Thirteen projects, promising to add 2.1 gigawatts of renewable electricity-generating capacity to the grid, were caught in the moratorium’s net. This generating capacity approximates what a refurbished Pickering nuclear plant will produce in Ontario.

Second, Smith ordered the independent regulator to study whether the renewables boom was taking up too much prime agricultural land and whether it was damaging the grid’s reliability. This report, possibly with recommendations for regulatory changes, will not be delivered before March 29.

The renewables industry was deservedly shocked at these moves. Prior to that astonishing announcement, a generation’s worth of Conservative government electricity policies served today’s renewables industry quite well. Conservatives deregulated Alberta’s electricity market in 2001 and in 2019, endorsed the previous NDP government’s decision to boost the renewable percentage of electricity production to 30 per cent by 2030. In 2022, the United Conservative Party passed legislation promising to foster “a low-carbon future through investment from industry rather than costly subsidies from taxpayers.” In this legislative environment, increasingly cost-competitive renewables thrived and a revolution in Alberta electricity generation began.

For her part, Smith, who became premier in October 2022, didn’t have a problem with the booming renewables industry, with its bounty of jobs and investment dollars. In fact, her party’s May 2023 election platform celebrated that Alberta was “poised to lead the country in the development of renewable energy, working alongside our traditional energy resources.”

The ideologies behind Smith’s actions

Smith’s challenge to the renewables revolution doesn’t mesh with typical “conservative” economic policy. It flies in the face of core contemporary conservative beliefs, such as deregulation and letting markets, rather than the state, decide where investments should be made. These chapters from conservative scripture don’t drive Smith’s policies towards renewables.

Her world view privileges two other ideologies. The first is what Audrea Lim called “the Ideology of Fossil Fuels.” First and foremost, Smith is passionate about promoting the continued unrestrained growth of oilsands production. And she’s happy to subsidize this with billions of taxpayer dollars as oilsands companies ostensibly chase the carbon capture and storage dream.

This fossil fuel ideology animates her preference for natural gas-fired electricity over renewables. It also drives her staunch opposition to Ottawa’s recently proposed clean electricity regulations. Ottawa aspires to establish a national net-zero electricity grid by 2035. Smith’s crystal ball tells her that’s simply impossible for Alberta. Furthermore, she’s made it clear her government will do whatever it can to fight realizing this ambition in Alberta.

In this fight, the premier invoked her signature legislation: the “Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act.” The law is an extraordinary departure from Canada’s constitutional order. It asserts an Alberta right to pass constitutional judgment on federal laws and regulations and act on that assessment — the judiciary’s role as Canada’s constitutional interpreter be damned.

Smith’s decision to invoke this act confirms more than ideological enthusiasm for fossil fuels. It reinforces a second ideological thread of her belief system: an intense dislike for Canada’s national government. Smith is an ardent decentralist who believes Alberta should have more power in the Canadian federation.

Will ideology or economics triumph?

Come early spring, we should know if Smith’s ideological opposition to renewables will best the compelling economics that have animated the renewables boom in Alberta. Some renewable energy developers appear to believe that whatever policy changes the provincial government may make will not cripple the economic case for renewable investments in Canada’s oil and gas heartland.

Seven new applications for solar facilities have landed on the regulator’s desk since the moratorium came into effect. Together, these projects would add one gigawatt of renewables generating capacity to the electricity grid.

One renewables industry executive I contacted believes their company’s approach already respects the values the government claimed required the moratorium and inquiry. Given this view, the executive believes it’s in the company’s interests to be near the head of the applications line.

Finally, there’s the bottom line for renewables developers. Here, a federal tax credit for investing in renewable technologies makes renewables electricity investment in Alberta more lucrative. According to Rystad Energy, this credit means a 250-megawatt renewable project built in Alberta will be nearly twice as valuable over its life. Thanks to the federal credit, an estimated after-tax project value of $131 million jumps to just over $200 million. Rystad notes the only place where returns on renewable projects would be higher is the U. S. Thanks to Ottawa, the economics of renewables investments in Alberta are even better now than when the solar boom began.

Alberta and Canada obviously are only small players when it comes to the renewable energy ambitions that prompted some of the celebrations at the conclusion of COP28. But Alberta’s current efforts to stall greening the grid may offer lessons for other jurisdictions about whether ideology can defeat economics when it comes to accelerating the renewables revolution.

In Alberta’s case, economics will almost certainly drive the province to a more sustainable and hopeful future.

Ian Urquhart is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alberta and author of Costly Fix: Power, Politics, and Nature in the Tar Sands (2018).

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1. What is being called "Conservative ideology" isn't "Conservative" at all. What passes now for conservatism in both Canada and the US is a far-right ideology that had no place at all in politics a few short decades ago.
2. The "free market" sentiment is like everything else in far-right parties: simple Humpty-Dumpty doublespeak, that means whatever the speaker wishes it to mean.
3. The continuing emphasis on large-scale "energy production" speaks to the "market ideology" ... and ensures that the cost of electricity to consumers will continue to mount. The "investment" is distributed ... through the likes of income tax, the ROI goes to the (mainly off-shore) corporations and their shareholders (most Canadians are "shareholders" only by extension through public pension plans.
4. Investment tax credits, like charitable donation credits, political contribution credits, and high health-care expense credits, have one by one, with no public announcement, been turned into non-refundable credits ... so those with sub-medial incomes pay for the whole show, without benefitting.
5. We don't have a whole lot of "fields" in Canada that cannot grow food, and are suitable for large-scale installations. But we have "fields" and fields of rooftops. Time to push our politicians for subsidies for roof-top solar and small-scale neighbourhood storage batteries that will benefit local areas.
6. Stop voting right-wing, for heaven's sake!!!

PS: Liberal policy now is what was clearly seen as right-wing even 3 decades ago -- i.e., within the lifetime of most NO readers, while what used to be the "party/parties of the right" have become rabid extremist right-wingers.

High time, folks, to push for subsidized roof-top

Excellent comment and agree 100%

An Urgent Climate Change Policy for BC:
A Solar Panel on Every Roof
A Wind Turbine in Every Rural Backyard
A Run of the River Hydro Turbine in Every Stream
Which would complement and realize BC Hydro's proposed 'Smart Grid'.

Yes. The Overton window in Canada has been pushed far to right just like in the USA. The Liberals are now at least centre right and the so called conservatives consider them radical left communists.
Indeed all rooftops should be covered in solar panels. The utility companies like BC Hydro should be putting them there!

It should also be noted that Danielle Smith works for and is a plant by the oil & gas industry in Alberta. Her focus is to cater to her oil & gas donors and not the people of Alberta. It's not certain that everything Smith does is in the best long-term interest for Alberta or those who live and work in Alberta. Alberta will pay the price in the long run for her policies around renewables.

Smith wants the Alberta government to start building natural gas plants because the utility companies and professionals at AESO (the ones who actually know how to operate and plan an electricity grid) aren't interested in stranding capital on natural gas plants that will rarely run at full capacity. But not to worry, it takes years to design and build a gas plant and Smith will be long gone before that ever happens. But I'm sure she'll give away billions in the process.

Don't use the word "produce" about generating "capacity". Pickering has about 2GW of capacity being renewed, and when running will produce that 2GW about 85% of the time, the rest is refuelling and other scheduled downtime; and they can schedule for when power is not needed.

The 2GW of renewables capacity will be running less than 30% of the time, and the outages will not be scheduled. So you can't say the renewables will "produce" the same as a nuclear plant. Nuclear plants were all running at full during the Dunkelflaute (collapse of both solar and wind generation) last Xmas in Alberta.