Alberta’s Bill 20 and the Climate Leadership Plan (CLP) propose a massive re-engineering of Alberta’s electricity system based only on assumptions that Alberta’s carbon footprint will somehow be reduced.
Since the Paris agreement last year, many governments are developing CO2 reduction plans without using practical and unbiased engineering expertise to establish long-term beneficial results. Complex, multidisciplinary and detailed studies are necessary for the major projects intended to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. Numbers do matter. The problem is not how to do this analysis but how to convince our governments to step back and allow a comprehensive regulatory review that will answer these questions.
A similar message came out of the 2016 International Conference on Environmental Science and Engineering, held this year in China, where I was invited to present a paper. Errors made in committing to a CO2 mitigation project are extremely important, considering that most environmental protection schemes involve long-term projects costing tens of billions of dollars and using significant amounts of energy. Their optimization can make a difference of millions of tonnes in CO2 emissions.
Inspired by Dr. Kua Harm Wei of the Singapore University, I performed a preliminary “Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment (LCSA)” on Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan (CLP) and Bill 20. Here is what I found: Alberta’s emissions are 37 per cent of Canada’s total. They are higher than other Canadian provinces as almost half of Alberta’s emissions (46 per cent) originate from the production of export oil and gas which incidentally contribute 30 per cent to Canada’s GDP. If de-carbonization is a battle to avert an impending disaster, a sensible strategy would be to tackle the largest component of the problem first. Electricity generation produces only 17 per cent of Alberta’s total CO2 emissions but the government focuses on this area and wants to replace 30 per cent of these emissions primarily with wind turbines, which are perceived to produce no CO2. So 30 per cent of 17 per cent leaves only 5.1 per cent of Alberta’s total CO2 emission to be reduced.
Consider: 1) Wind turbines are an intermittent power source which must be shadowed 100 per cent of the time by dispatchable spin reserve power. 2) Burning natural gas releases half as much CO2 as modern coal-fired power plants. 3) Annual wind turbine performance is 30 per cent which keeps those backup turbines running on “spin reserve” 30 per cent of the year and “full load” 70 per cent. These three further reduce Alberta’s CO2 footprint savings from 5.1 per cent to about three per cent. Consider now the incremental CO2 emissions from using steel coal and fossil fuels to produce steel and other materials needed to manufacture thousands of wind turbines, their steel towers, additional steel towers for power lines, and massive concrete bases for all of them. Consider also the CO2 releases to build the backup gas turbine plants and the extra GHG releases from escaping methane due to increased production of gas.
In reality, the theoretical three per cent environmental benefit becomes so small that it becomes debatable whether it even exists. In addition, according to a recent AESO’s report (2016 AESO Outlook) on implementation of the (CLP), the annual average rate of increase in demand in grid capacity from now to 2037 is 2.24 per cent per year – most of it to come from gas plants. In summary: any savings in CO2 from the CLP is between zero per cent and three per cent. Regardless of the exact amount, any benefit will be eliminated soon by growth. Where is the sustainable benefit to our environment from a $50-billion planned CLP expenditure?
There are other options to significantly reduce CO2 emissions. If our government focused instead on the production of export fuels, which represents 46 per cent of Alberta’s CO2 emissions, things would be brighter for both the environment and our economy. We could import hydro from B.C. or Manitoba for the energy needed at the oilsands and in time reduce up to 46 per cent of our CO2 emissions, as proposed by the Canadian Energy Research Institute.
Another possibility would be to use nuclear power in oilsands extraction and upgrading as proposed a few years ago by Energy Alberta and Bruce Power. Alternatively, the government could focus on domestic transport fuel which could provide a net 11 per cent reduction of our emissions by producing synthetic fuel from recycling CO2 from the atmosphere. All these processes are known and Alberta has an abundance of expertise to establish a path to commercialization. Yes, these options are costly, but so are the subsidy costs of the CLP. A sustainable solution will only emerge from innovation not from subsidies.
The main question I raise is why has the government focused on wind and solar when there is negligible environmental gain and there is so much negative experience from other countries who have spent 30 years of effort and trillions of dollars on renewables without success? Why not learn from the mistakes of others? Our government needs to step back and subject their massive proposals to the kind of lifetime cumulative environmental impact assessment we expect from industry. Albertans are owed this.
Cosmos Voutsinos of Lethbridge has a background as a professional engineer.
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