Green power options need exploring
In the game of power generation, burning coal is a good way to go. It’s relatively cheap and plentiful, especially important as Alberta’s power demands are growing.
But burning coal also has another distinct and non-compatible side, according to Charlie Bredo, owner of Bow Valley Power, a Canmore-based electricity retailer that sells both regular and green power.
“The point is we have this reality. We have a power demand and we have to satisfy that. The problem we have right now is that 45 per cent of our power is produced by burning coal. It’s a blessing and a curse,” Bredo said.
Coal-burning power plants keep prices cheap, relatively speaking, Bredo said, but it is “incredibly polluting” on the other hand. With its reliance on coal-burning plants, Alberta’s power production is four times more polluting than the national average, according to Environment Canada. Alberta produces 880 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour (kW-h) of electricity produced, while Quebec is the lowest at two grams per kW-h of electricity. However, Quebec relies primarily on hydro, which can cause a great amount of environmental damage, Bredo pointed out.
“Just because it comes from hydro doesn’t mean it is green,” he said. “Like anything in life, it’s not a simple answer.”
Wendy Francis, program director with the Canmore-based Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, said Tuesday new hydro projects could eat up a tremendous amount of wildlife habitat.
For example, the proposed Site C dam on the Peace River, billed by BC Hydro as a “clean energy project” would flood about 9,500 hectares of land, blocking wildlife movement and destroying wildlife habitat.
But Albertans do have alternatives to polluting coal-burning power plants and even large-scale hydro dams.
One option is supporting “green power” initiatives such as windmills through the use of renewable energy certificates that allows consumers to buy the “attributes” of green power.
When customers sign up for green power through green power providers such as Bow Valley Power or Bullfrog Power, Bredo said, they are not really buying green power per se, as power generated by windmills, hyrdo dams and coal-burning plants is all fed into the same electrical grid.
Instead, consumers are buying an EcoLogo certified renewable energy certificate (REC), which allows green-energy producers to sell the green attributes of non-polluting or renewable power.
One REC, on average, represents one megawatt-hour (MW-h) or 1,000 kW-h of power generated and put into the electrical grid. The average homeowner who uses 500 to 1,000 kW-h of power each month would require 1/2 to one REC per month, about costs at $10 to $20 a month.
“When you buy green power you are buying the renewable energy certificates and those represent the green attributes of the power and it ensures you are offsetting their power with green power. Another way of saying it is that you’re ensuring green power is being put into the grid on your behalf to offset the negative effects of the power that you are using,” Bredo said.
While the certificates represent an intangible aspect of green power, they also have a tangible side in that each certificate also represents the actual demand for renewable energy.
This allows regulators and producers to act accordingly and, if enough people are willing to pay for the green attributes of power, Bredo hopes producers will see value in switching from coal-fired plants to other forms.
“If there’s a huge demand for green power, people will see the value of green and demand green; there will be more green power generation,” Bredo said. “If you can prove to industry and the government there is a demand for green power, then industry and our policy makers will follow that demand and an investor will say, ‘wait a second here, I can make a lot of money selling green power. I’m going to build a green power plant. If there was absolutely nothing in it for these guys, they’d keep burning coal.”
And based on Economics 101, Bredo said, increased demand means increased supply.
Currently, residential power use only accounts for 13 per cent of Alberta’s overall power use. Commercial consumes 20 per cent while industrial (without the oilsands) use is 47 per cent. The oilsands industry uses 17 per cent.
Alberta has a peak power capacity of 14,000 megawatts, which is enough electricity to power about 14 million residential homes. The majority of that power (45 per cent) is generated by burning coal, followed by gas, which accounts for 39 per cent of the power. Hydro only accounts for seven per cent, followed by wind at six per cent and biomass (three per cent).
And within Alberta, generating electricity is the second largest greenhouse gas emitter, accounting for 21 per cent of all GHGs released in the province.
The other option, which in Alberta was implemented in 2009, is to use micro-generation power technology, such as solar panels, small-scale hydro, wind, biomass or fuel cells, to produce electricity and receive a credit for the power they feed into the grid.
“At the end of the day the numbers aren’t quite there,” Bredo said, adding it would probably take 15 to 20 years to pay off the investment on the panels, but it is an innovative step forward.
“I think this is awesome. I think this is tremendous for Alberta. Again, it is sending the right message and it is moving people in the right direction,” he said, adding he is able to offer 15 cents a kWh.
But like hydro, green power isn’t that simple. All of the forms of power generation, including wind, run-of-river hydro and large-scale solar projects, have their detrimental side, along with coal, oil and natural gas.
Wind turbines, especially the larger projects with hundreds of windmills, use valuable land, as do large-scale solar projects.
Windmills are known to kill birds and bats, while run-of-river hydro projects – where water is removed and then returned to a river without necessarily damming – can alter river levels and kill fish.
“For all of these choices you are talking about comparing things that are better or worse, not that there is a perfect energy choice, because there isn’t,” Francis said.
“When you’re talking about habitat impacts, open pit coal mines have a significant loss of habitat, so does natural gas,” said Francis. “Natural gas burns much cleaner than coal. It burns cleaner than oil. From a greenhouse gas perspective, natural gas is a better choice, but from a habitat impact, gas wells have exactly the same impact as oil wells and now that we are into shale gas and coal bed methane, they actually have a greater impact because the density of the wells on the land is much, much tighter. Natural gas is not a cleaner choice from a habitat loss perspective.”
Perhaps, at least at this point, where no one perfect solution exists, Francis said a better option is to improve energy efficiency and reduce the amount of power used in homes and businesses.
“There is no perfect solution and probably what we need, definitely we need, is more energy conservation. We need a real mix of these sources that shift us more and more to less greenhouse gas producing, but that also allows us to continue to look for better options and to reduce impacts on the ground for the sources we are using. And we need a real mix of sources that shift it more and more to less-green house gas producing sources, but also allowing us to look for better solutions,” she said.
And, according to Bredo, the single best thing homeowners can do – also the simplest as it requires no infrastructure, no new technology and no cost – is to turn off the lights.
“When you flick on your light switch it is polluting. It doesn’t smell, there’s no smoke, but it’s polluting,” he said, adding it is the same as leaving a car running, but at least there, the exhaust is visible.
“Imagine your house with the lights on, but the exhaust pipe is above ground and going all the way to Wabamun where they have a bunch of coal-fired power plants. The exhaust pipe is out of sight and 500 kilometres away. Electricity pollutes even though you don’t notice the effects.”
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