Sure, the oil and gas sectors are the largest contributors to Alberta’s economy. Yes, documents recently obtained by Greenpeace reveal a far too cosy relationship between the provincial government and industry, if pipeline safety reviews are any indication.
But beyond the ruling Conservative government and the dominance of the petroleum sector are a growing number of progressive Albertan municipalities and entrepreneurs working toward a future not entirely dependent on fossil fuels.
Many achievements, in fact, mark firsts for Canada. The Town of Okotoks, a 15-minute drive from Calgary, was the first community to heat an entire neighbourhood with a solar district heating system. Calgary’s light-rail transit system, the CTrain, is the first to get all of its electricity from wind power.
This year, Edmonton became the first municipality to produce ethanol at a commercial scale from its municipal solid waste.
Meanwhile, a Calgary-based company called Borealis GeoPower aims to generate geothermal power from the hot wastewater that emerges as a byproduct of oil and gas production in the northern Alberta town of Swan Hills – another first, potentially.
One project this writer is eagerly following is developing in Medicine Hat, a municipality often referred to as “Gas City” because of the discovery in 1883 of major natural gas reserves.
Medicine Hat is attempting to prove that, even in a cold northern place like Alberta, energy from the sun can be harnessed directly at existing thermal power plants to displace the use of fossil fuels.
This isn’t a new idea. It’s been talked about since 2007, when the city commissioned a feasibility study to determine if it could be done and made good sense.
Medicine Hat is, in fact, the best place in this massive country to put up solar panels. The city gets more sunlight over a year than any other Canadian city – nearly 50 per cent more sunshine than Toronto.
Would you believe even more than Miami?
Medicine Hat’s plan is to install solar collectors (a type known as parabolic troughs) that can concentrate sunlight so much that the heat produced can turn water into steam. That steam will be fed into the steam generators at the municipality’s existing 203-megawatt thermal power plant, which normally relies on natural gas to produce steam.
Once completed, likely before next fall, it will be the first concentrated solar power (CSP) project built in Canada, as well as the first one ever integrated directly into a natural gas plant.
In October, the city selected Colorado-based SkyFuel to supply eight of its solar collector assemblies for the project, which will be capable of offsetting the equivalent of 1.1 megawatts of electricity normally generated from natural gas.
It’s not much, given the size of the plant, but as a demonstration project it will answer all sorts of questions. Can it scale up? Where else in Alberta would this approach be used? Could it work at coal-fired power plants and in the oil sands to offset natural gas used in bitumen extraction?
How economical is it, both today and as technology improves and costs fall? Who knows, maybe it will prove more cost-effective than carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies as a way to comply with federal environmental regulations, which will start to kick in come 2015?
One can only hope that the many “firsts” that Alberta is achieving in the area of clean energy will begin to add up and gather collective momentum, and at the same time get the province’s energy-dependent economy on the path to diversification.
Solar. Geothermal. Energy from waste. Wind. All of it will be needed to reduce Alberta’s dependence on fossil fuels, which currently represent more than 90 per cent of its power generation.
The province’s municipalities and entrepreneurs are leading the way, and they deserve the support and encouragement of all Canadians if we are to tackle climate change as a country.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.