Has Ottawa put moratorium on conventional coal power?

Saw a few stories today, based on an article that appeared in the Globe and Mail, suggesting the federal government has drawn the line when it comes to coal-fired power plants, or at least the kind of plants that don’t capture and permanently store their CO2. Canada’s federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice apparently met last week with the nation’s top power company executives and made the government’s intentions clear. According to the Globe, “Under Ottawa’s proposal, power companies would have to close their coal-fired facilities as they reach the end of their commercial life, largely over the next 10 to 15 years. The companies would not be allowed to refurbish the plants to extend their usefulness or replace them with new coal units, unless they include technology to capture the carbon dioxide and sequester it underground.”

Does this amount to a moratorium on dirty coal? It seems like it does, but the targets are pretty soft and you can bet this government will be so flexible with industry — particularly in Alberta and Saskatchewan — that the effect of this moratorium won’t be felt for a least two decades. And that, unfortunately, is too late to matter. Just how the feds will define “end of useful life” or “refurbishment” can have a dramatic effect on the outcome. Coal plants don’t need major refurbishments. Like refineries, they are in constant repair and maintenance mode. Like an old car, as long as you keep repairing stuff when it breaks it can run forever, really. So you can expect existing coal plant owners, such as TransAlta, to drag this out for a long time. Even worse, TransAlta — the country’s worst polluter — is still building new coal plants, hoping to slide them in under the bell. This includes two projects totalling 500 megawatts that will be in service next year. Those plants could run for 40 or 50 years!

What we need is a meaningful price on carbon, and a hard moratorium that requires carbon capture retrofits by a certain date or a conversion of paid-for coal plants so that they can burn natural gas or biomass. Ontario has committed to phasing out coal power or converting to biomass/natural gas by 2014, but Alberta and Saskatchewan are heading in the opposite direction. If Ottawa truly wants to achieve its original goal of Canada having 90 per cent emission-free power by 2020 it’s going to have to stop handling its western provinces with kids’ gloves. But really, it’s the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments that should be making these hard decisions, since the feds have no jurisdiction on provincial energy policy.

I have only one thing to say (shout) to the Alberta government: Geothermal Power! Geothermal Power!

As for Ontario, I think the province needs to do a better job of promoting the low-emission nature of its electricity system. I mean, what’s better — a car manufactured in a province where 80 per cent or more of its power is emission-free, or a car manufactured in a state (like Michigan) where 80 per cent or more of power is based on coal? From a lifecycle perspective, Ontario has the edge and should be pointing that out to future electric car makers, wind turbine manufacturers and solar panel makers that truly want their products to be green in both operation and construction.

5 thoughts on “Has Ottawa put moratorium on conventional coal power?”

  1. I just had a debate on Microsoft Hohm’s facebook page about clean coal and it seems that the technology isn’t really there yet, majority of the people that interacted stated that we should focus our energy elsewhere into solar and wind. What’s your take on that?

  2. Interesting column Tyler, as always. You correctly state in your story “the feds have no jurisdiction on provincial energy policy.” I hope Ontario and the Feds realize this; they in fact have no say in what Alberta or Saskatchewan does in relation to energy. Next time you see Dalton McGuinty, Jack Layton or Elizabeth May you could tell them that. All three often talk, incorrectly I might add, as if they do have some jurisdication.

  3. With the upcoming General Election here in the UK looking a very close call, SolarUK and other companies in the renewable energy industry are wondering what the future holds for feed-in tariffs, investment in ‘green’ jobs, and overall CO2 reduction targets. The Labour government has been particularly keen on carbon-capture-and-storage projects, which would enable it to continue building new coal power stations, but I see that researchers in the US are now suggesting that CCS is not going to prove viable (all to do with ‘flow’ and the laws of physic, apparently).

  4. Given the amount of undeveloped hydropower in the northern reaches of Saskatchewan and Alberta, which IIRC ATCO put at 25 GW, it seems neither of these provinces has anything to lose. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about a federally-backed HVDC gridline, which would make these projects commercially interesting. Heck, give the contract to TransAlta.

  5. Still, it seems worthwhile for people concerned about climate change to let the government know that they applaud this decision. Sure, it needs to be stronger and capable of preventing new construction. At the same time, coal really is the biggest source of climate danger, so it is good to see it specifically targeted.

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