Alberta's NDP government says that sharp reductions in pollution from electricity production in the oil-rich province over the past two years prove that carbon pricing is effective.
The new numbers are based on the data that the government collects from the electricity-generating facilities themselves and was made available on request to National Observer.
The preliminary statistics give the governing New Democrats some new ammunition as they prepare for an upcoming spring election against United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney, who has questioned the degree to which humans are causing climate change.
Kenney, who has spent most of the past few decades in Ottawa as a federal Conservative politician and minister in the government of former prime minister Stephen Harper, returned to Alberta to lead the opposition UCP after the federal Conservatives were defeated in the 2015 general election.
The provincial government of Premier Rachel Notley, whose left-leaning New Democratic Party broke 44 years of conservative-led government when she took power in 2015, is pointing to its efforts to lessen the use of coal-fired power via a price on carbon as a key reason for this progress in limiting pollution from electricity production.
Big cuts in small slice of overall pie
The electricity sector accounted for roughly 17 per cent of the 262.9 megatonnes (MT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions that Alberta released into the atmosphere in 2016. The oil and gas sector accounted for almost 48 per cent of the province's total carbon pollution in that year, according to federal data.
Overall emissions data for 2017 and 2018 have not been collated and published yet. Alberta's overall emissions in 2016 — a reporting year that likely does not incorporate much benefit from the provincial NDP government's policies — were down from the 265-268 MT range of the previous three years but still above longer-term levels.
Alberta's oilsands has the third largest oil reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezeula, and questions about how much of it to exploit and at what cost are pertinent for both the province's and the country's economic and political landscapes.
Alberta's total electricity sector emissions were 38.1 MT in 2018, down from 45.4 MT in 2017. Notley said last week that this reduction was the equivalent of slashing the overall carbon pollution in metro Vancouver, three times over.
Alberta's enviro minister @SPhillipsAB tells @5thEstate that sharp reductions in pollution from electricity production in the oil-rich province over past two years proves that carbon pricing is effective. #abpoli
Climate change is a real threat to Alberta's bright future.— Rachel Notley (@RachelNotley) February 13, 2019
Our plan is working.
In just three years, our emissions reduction is like eliminating the emissions of Metro Vancouver - three times over.https://t.co/8rqN0rXG6E
The drop in pollution from electricity production was largely thanks to early efforts to phase out coal by 2030, the government said in a statement, adding that this was "proving that carbon pricing is effective." Both electrical output and emissions from coal fell by around one-quarter in 2018 compared to 2017.
Delicate balancing act, election looms
As part of Alberta's climate policies, electricity providers pay a price on carbon if the amount of emissions they release per amount of energy produced is above a specified target, and coal produces the most greenhouse gas emissions per KWh of any fuel source.
Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said the government had to take action in the electricity sector regardless of climate concerns due to years of mismanagement by the former provincial governments.
The NDP government's climate leadership plan includes a pledge that by 2030 it will procure 30 per cent of the electricity used in Alberta from renewable energy sources and will have phased out coal pollution. That requires a delicate balancing act when courting voters in swing electorates who rely on income from extractive industries such as oil and gas and mining.
Voters will judge her party's management of the dual mandates of supporting provincial communities and economies based on fossil-fuel extraction and ensuring a sensible and smooth transition to a low-carbon future in an election that is expected by May.
Kenney has made a point of promising to scrap Alberta's consumer-level carbon tax, if he forms a government. His party is also supporting other right-leaning governments in Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick that are challenging the federal government's plans to impose a price on carbon pollution. He has not stated a detailed alternative plan for dealing with climate change, but has said he supports a carbon tax on industrial emitters.
“Given that climate change is real, and low-cost emissions reductions are urgent and necessary, pricing pollution is universally recognized as the right way to go about this endeavour," said Phillips.
The Alberta NDP's plan involves enforcing certain standards of cleanliness for each of its sources of emissions.
"If you can beat the performance standard for any given product — in the case of electricity it's electrons, in the case of the oil sands it's a barrel of bitumen and if you exceed that performance standard...you get credit for taking that good action," Phillips explained. "But if you don't do better than the performance standard you either pay into the fund or exercise your other compliance flexibility options" such as selling offset credits.
"The approach is the same whether it's a petrochemical operator, a fertilizer manufacturer, a refiner, or a canola crusher, Suncor or (a company) generating electricity," she added.
Intelligent design makes cleaner power easier: Phillips
She said the end result was that the Notley goverment had "updated the way that we price emissions in the electricity sector that provided for generators within our deregulated electricity system to make different kinds of business decisions that would result in lower greenhouse gas emissions,” in a 20-minute phone interview with National Observer.
The plan “incentivized more natural gas, more natural gas conversion (meaning a physical transition of a coal plant into a natural gas plant)” in the electricity sector, she said, adding that there are plans for conversions of plants but none have yet completed the required process.
“When you make intelligently-designed climate policy and you price emissions, you reduce emissions,” she said. "That’s what this teaches us."
The data show that coal-fired electricity production in Alberta resulted in 985 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent for every kilowatt hour (kg CO2e/kWh) of energy in 2018, compared to 293g CO2e/kWh for co-generation, 413g CO2e/kWh for combined cycle, and 577g CO2e/kWh for simple cycle processes.
Co-generation refers to the production of electricity using waste heat (in the form of steam) from an industrial process or the use of steam from electric power generation as a source of heat. In a combined cycle process, the hot gas leaving the gas turbine passes to a boiler where it heats water to produce steam which passes to a steam turbine and then on to a condenser, which then generates more electricity in a steam-powered generating unit.
A simple cycle process has no provision for waste heat recovery but offers faster startup times, meaning power plants that use this process are often called on only during periods of high demand.
Renewable energy still small, but growing part of mix
The data also show that renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, and biomass — which release little or no carbon dioxide or other atmosphere-depleting gases in the process of making electricity — are steadily growing in terms of the actual number of megawatt hours of electricity they are providing and in turn taking a larger slice of the overall energy mix.
But natural gas picked up much of the heavy lifting in 2018 as coal moved into a position as minority source of Alberta's electricity for the first time.
Alberta's coal-fired electricity generators provided 47 per cent of the province's power supply in 2018, down from 59 per cent in 2017, the data showed. Power from burning natural gas rose from 31 per cent up to 42 per cent of the total energy mix.
Wind energy is much bigger than solar in Alberta, providing almost seven per cent of total supply. But solar industry advocates see no reason why the sun's energy cannot be harvested on a larger scale in the province.
The process to phase out coal plants in Alberta was actually started under the Harper government, which introduced regulations in 2014 that Alberta now says would have shut down 12 of its 18 plants by 2030 on its own.
But Phillips said that these decisions by Harper's government, with Kenney at the cabinet table in Ottawa, failed to incorporate any transition plan for displaced workers and communities, nor did it lay out a plan for how to replace the lost generating capacity.
She said it was done "with absolutely no plan for how that generation was going to be replaced, or to the people in those communities."
Editor's note: This article was correccted on March 29, 2021 to show that emissions figures in in grams per kilowatt hour, not kilograms.