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.