Midjourney generated image of wind turbines melting in the style of Picasso

Alberta Halts New Renewables Because They Were Too Successful

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In the past year, various Alberta, Canada, boosterism types have been celebrating Oslo-based research firm Rystad Energy’s report saying that the home of the much-maligned oil sands was set to become the biggest renewable energy generator in the country. Articles touting the billions in spending and thousands of job were rife in outlets across Canada.

The Calgary Economic Development organization, a business attraction group common to urban areas worldwide, celebrated Calgary as a leader in the energy transition and in environmentally aware energy.

“Calgary has long been known as an energy city and today, [sic] is being recognized as a leader in the global energy transition. Alberta is Canada’s largest oil and natural gas producer. The province also boasts some of Canada’s best wind, solar, bioenergy and geothermal resources.”

Yup, a leader in the energy transition as Canada’s largest oil and natural gas producer. A bit of cognitive dissonance there. Of course, the entire page is decorated with wind turbines and solar panels, and while it extols the province’s glorious sunshine and wind resources, it can’t help but mention that they have the third-largest crude oil reserves in the world.

They are oddly silent on the massive energy cost of extracting those crude oil reserves, requiring as they do burning immense amounts of natural gas to turn remarkable amounts of water into steam and piping it underground to sufficiently liquify oil sands beds hundreds of meters underground so that it flows into pipes for extraction and yet more energetically vampiric removal of the sand from the tar. And they are silent on the remarkable amounts of gray hydrogen they make from natural gas at great energetic expense and large carbon and methane emissions to remove sufficient sulfur, water, and other impurities from the tar to make it palatable to the refineries that buy it.

The pictures of wind turbines and solar panels on the page are nice. They tend to be all over the annual reports, web pages, and even the office walls of Alberta’s oil and gas producers, at least based on my experience a few years ago.

The Pembina Institute set up the Business Renewables Centre Canada (BRC) in Calgary in 2019, with a focus on unlocking large-scale renewables across Canada. Or rather:

“To have the most impact, BRC-Canada decided to focus on Alberta’s deregulated energy market, where organizations can buy energy directly from sellers without going through a centralized utility.”

A year ago the BRC was asserting “$3.7 billion worth of renewables construction by 2023 and 4,500 jobs” in Alberta.

And this Alberta focus was understandable. As we cross Canada, each province is remarkably different in its focus. BC, Manitoba, and Quebec are all about hydro, although Quebec does have a 4 GW wind farm which most of the rest of Canada persists in being unaware of. Ontario has a lot of hydro, way too much nuclear with an odd plan to build more, and infamously cut up 758 renewables contracts without recourse upon ascension of a populist right-wing government to Queen’s Park in 2018. One of the Maritime provinces spent $23 million on the Joi Scientific perpetual hydrogen energy scam that didn’t pass the slightest sniff test.

When a sensible centrist government was elected for the first time in Alberta’s history in 2015, they actually created a climate action plan, one which was very good for Alberta, if only pretty good in general. Coal was going to be shut down and renewables would replace most of that generation. They supported the federal carbon price, while also pushing hard for the pipeline to nowhere that Canada bought a few years ago and that has seen a tripling of construction costs since.

Alberta was the only bright spot for new wind and solar in the country that didn’t speak French. Lots of projects were considered. They were inhibited by the very high interconnection costs to transmission in the province, something that the jurisdiction has in common with Australia, where energy liberalization led to transmission operators gold-plating their lines with insufficient oversight and pragmatic thinking.

EDF built 247 MW of wind energy in southeastern Alberta. Keith Hirsche of Renuwell finally started putting solar farms on remediated oil and gas wells. A small pumped hydro facility was in plan. Lots of wind and solar was in the pipeline.

This absurd policy decision puts 15 approved projects at serious risk of removal of approval, perpetual inability to start, additional cost burdens on long-baked business cases or simply loss of profitability as time passes while debt builds up and contract clauses with suppliers kick in. There are another 91 projects in various stages of planning, design and approvals that are now dead in the water for half a year or more, with no guarantees that the province will actually come up with any sensible guidance at the end, or create conditions that can be met by projects.

This is much worse than when the oil-and-gas-rules party slithered back into power in 2019, and the industry was worried that something stupid like this would happen. There was regulatory sluggishness, but things kept moving and approvals were forthcoming.

Renewables were a rare good news story coming out of a province that had wrapped its economy and politics around the axle of oil and gas. It was great press compared to ongoing issues with cold and heavy oil production with sand (CHOPS) and its massive methane emission and heavy, sour crude that was expensive to process and refine. This was excellent press to distract from the absurd and rapidly growing number of orphaned oil and gas wells that the taxpayers are going to end up remediating.

This was awesome press compared to the environmental devastation in northern Alberta from oil sands extraction and processing, even though it was a long way from where anybody could see it. I’m pretty sure that many people in Alberta have a long-standing hatred of photographer Edward Burtynsky, who took panoramic photos of the hideous mess global.

This was amazing press compared to a couple of dozen vacant Calgary office buildings. This was great press compared to the Alberta-centered, racist, anti-vaxx ‘Freedom Convoy’ which occupied a couple of border crossings and downtown Ottawa for weeks, leading to the most impressively low-violence, effective and massive police action in anyone’s memory as they were carefully herded out of the city they should never have been allowed to drive their rigs and pickups into.

This was wonderful press compared to the current premier actively trying to get one of the border crossing blockade organizers cleared of charges.

So what exactly did Alberta decide to do with this one great news story out of a morass of awfulness? Well, they decided to put a moratorium on all approvals of wind and solar farms bigger than a megawatt in capacity for seven months.

Yes, that’s right, they are actively shutting down the clean energy pipeline in the province. What exactly are the concerns?

“The commission will initiate an inquiry into issues of development on agricultural land, effect on scenery, reclamation security, the role of municipalities and system reliability.”

Let’s take that step by step, shall we?

Alberta has more land under agriculture than any province in the country except for neighboring Saskatchewan, about 200,000 square kilometers. That’s bigger than about 18 countries in the world. Alberta has a solar farm that’s 465 MW capacity that covers 13.35 square kilometers. That’s about 0.007% of the land under cultivation. They could build 143 more solar farms of equivalent scale with 66 GW of capacity on 1% of their current agricultural land. Oh, and the total land area in Alberta is 3.3 times the size of the current land under agriculture.

Of course, wind farms co-exist with crops, taking up 1% of the total land under cultivation and usually the worst bits, so it’s a non-concern for agriculture.

Wait. What’s that you ask? How much land have the oil sands despoiled? Well, about 760 square kilometers. That huge solar farm is 1.8% of that land area, so you could build about 55 solar farms with a total capacity of about 26 GW before you used up as much land as the oil sands have created environmental havoc upon.

Oh, and wind turbines and solar panels are chemically inert. They have to be to sit outside in all elements for three decades generating clean electricity. Can’t really say the same for oil sands extraction and processing facilities. Or the product that comes out of them.

So the agricultural land use stuff is complete and utter cow manure, appropriate for a province whose business capital revels in its annual animal cruelty festival, the Calgary Stampede. Over 100 animals have died horrible deaths at the Stampede since 1986, mostly horses lashed into harnesses for the chuckwagon races, known colloquially as the half mile of hell. Yeah, that’s good press too.

Hmmm… effect on scenery. I’ll refer back to that 760 square kilometers and the Edward Burtynsky photographs. And the reeking pall of wildfire smoke that descends on Edmonton and parts north, and increasingly frequently on Calgary due to wildfires that have increased massively in scale and ferocity due to climate change. Oh, and the oil refineries flaring gas dotted around Edmonton and other parts of the province. Oh, and the over 450,000 oil and gas wells with related infrastructure visible in most places in the province. Yup, wind farms and solar farms are really a scenic problem.

Reason two is completely bogus.

Oh, reclamation security! This is a good one. What happens when those wind and solar farms reach end of life? Alberta has to make those evil developers be responsible for cleaning up those environmentally inert wind and solar farms. Unlike the aforementioned 155,000 unreclaimed oil and gas wells, at least 10,000 of which are orphaned. Or the CA$250 billion in liabilities for cleaning up oil and gas’ mess as the industry goes bankrupt in stages over the next 40 years.

Yeah, reason three doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny.

The role of municipalities is interesting. Did you know that a lot of those orphaned wells are sitting on municipal lands, no longer paying leases to land owners or taxes to the municipalities? Did you know that Alberta municipalities were often 80% dependent on oil and gas well taxes to fund their services? Did you know that Alberta’s government gave oil and gas companies a pass on taxes to municipalities a couple of years ago during COVID, and many companies decided to never pay taxes again? Did you know that Alberta municipalities are absurdly hungry for any new revenue sources and delighted to get renewables if they can?

Yeah, reason four is a fail.

Finally we come to the big bugaboo, system reliability. Total electrical demand in the province in 2022 was 86,572 GWh of electricity. Wind, water, and solar provide 12.5% of electricity during the year, which is up a lot from 2015 when renewables started in earnest. That’s a reasonable amount.

Has it been affecting system reliability? No. What does the Alberta government’s own material say about power outages?

“Many of Alberta’s hazards, such as high winds, freezing rain and flooding, can damage power lines causing power outages.”

Hey, what other countries have vastly higher penetrations of wind, water and solar generation, especially wind and water? How about Germany and Denmark, with approaching 50% of annual demand met by those two technologies, and in Denmark’s case most of it being wind energy.

Are those two countries suffering system reliability problems? Well, they have about 13 minutes of outages per customer per year, a level that anyone in North America would be extraordinarily pleased to get, as we average about two hours per year.

Is it because Alberta hasn’t had time to learn how to manage a grid with a lot of renewables? No, this started eight years ago and they had lots of other jurisdictions’ lessons to draw on. That’s plenty of time to adopt better grid management practices and annually increment them with renewables.

So there goes reason number five. Alberta’s renewables aren’t causing grid reliability problems, renewables are clearly easy to integrate into grids without reliability issues in ratios much higher than Alberta has or will have, and Alberta has had close to a decade to figure out what other jurisdictions have figured out.

But there’s a bonus reason, a number six. The current Premier of the province, the one who tried to get a criminal off of serious charges by interfering with the legal system, has announced that it’s the federal government’s fault because they don’t want Alberta to build more natural gas plants, which she asserts are necessary as backup for renewables.

So much fail here. Let’s start with the reasons why this is a dumb statement out of the box. First off, wind and solar don’t need natural gas, they need things that firm electricity at least some of the time, like the pumped hydro. Second, storage is an end game problem. The province has a lot of gas plants already, although some of them spend a lot more time providing energy for oil sands extraction than for more useful pursuits. There is little short term need for backup. Third, energy analysts inside the province are clear that that the Premier and her coterie think wind and solar require 100% backup, which is such an archaic fail of a disinformation meme that it’s kind of embarrassing for an ‘energy’ province’s leadership.

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Why else is this statement dumb as a dusty box of melted yellow rubber hammers? Well, the federal government doesn’t have any ability to approve or reject any form of generation a province wants to build. That’s not a federal responsibility. The Premier is blaming the federal government for something that they’d prefer Alberta not do but has no authority over. However, that is politics in Alberta, where blaming the feds and Trudeau for anything and everything always plays well locally, no matter how ridiculous it is. And as someone from the next province over in the same country, I can guarantee it is as ridiculous as it sounds.

It’s almost like this is an ideologically motivated witch hunt that’s completely baseless. It’s almost like Alberta hates getting any good press. It’s almost like the current administration actively wants to shoot the energy transition in the foot. Nah, couldn’t be.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 744 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard