Alberta is literally and figuratively built on a mountain of coal.

For the past 100 years, coal from mines peppered across the province have kept the lights on here. A cheap and reliable source of power that gave the province's industries an edge and kept power bills low.

It's a long tradition that continues today.

On a crisp winter day along the sun-kissed banks of Battle River, in central Alberta, the province's oldest coal-fired power plant chugs along. Originally built in 1954, ATCO Power's aptly named Battle River Generating Station can turn out 689 megawatts of power.

Powerplant

ATCO's Battle River Generating Station was first built in 1954. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Fuel for the plant is provided by the nearby Paintearth mine, operated by the Colorado-based Westmoreland Coal Company. The mine consists of two open pits, where coal is scraped from just below the ground's surface, and hauled down the narrow country road to the station.

Westmoreland has a contract to supply the Battle River plant with coal until 2022, just eight years before the provincial government has committed to eliminating coal-fired power plants in Alberta. 

On the surface, the goal sounds simple enough. But for Alberta's government, achieving that target by 2030 is anything but straightforward.

Coal currently accounts for more than half of the province's electricity and is the lifeblood of many communities and industries across Alberta. 

A short drive from Battle River, Matt Fedun reaches under the hood of an ATCO Power truck in his garage in Forestburg, Alta. The coal industry has long been an integral part of the tiny village's economy and it is a big reason Fedun says he can keep his business open. 

"The power plant, the coal mine and agriculture are the three large industries in the area." 

Mattco

Matt Fedun stands next to an ATCO truck in his Forestburg garage. Coal-related industries keep his small business alive too. (Erin Collins/CBC)

There is more energy in Alberta's coal than in all of the province's oil, gas and bitumen combined. And it's cheap. But times have changed and the black rock has become a pariah of sorts. No longer seen as an advantage, it's now viewed as a dirty habit to be kicked.

It's a shift that worries Fedun. The father of a nine-month-old baby girl, Fedun has put down roots here, buying a home and a business in recent years. He wants his little girl to grow up in Forestburg and attend the local K-12 school. But he says that if the local mine and power plant close, his plans may have to change.  

"If those two were to shut down, I would estimate 20 per cent of our population would probably leave to look for work elsewhere," Fedun says.

And shut down they will. Quitting coal is precisely what Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips intends to do.

"Almost everyone else is moving off coal now because they see the tremendous health benefits for doing it," she says.

Phillips

Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips says the province is committed to phasing out coal-fired electricity by 2030. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Phillips says the province will replace coal with a mix of natural gas and renewable energy, like wind and solar power, in just 14 years.

"What we know now is that we have an abundant supply of natural gas at a low price and we also have an abundant supply of renewable energy."

A recent poll shows that about half of Albertans approve of the shift away from coal. Those that oppose it predict higher power bills for consumers and ghost towns where thriving communities once stood. But Phillips says the government plans to help with the transition away from coal.

"We are very, very committed to economic diversification and we know that we are going to have some challenges in some of these communities," she says. "So what we are going to make sure that what we do is make sure that our diversification efforts feed into this transition away from coal."

Of course not everyone believes that transition is necessary. Robin Campbell used to to hold Shannon Phillips' job and the former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister thinks giving up on coal is a mistake.

"It is premature today to talk about phasing out an industry that has been a vital part of the growing of Alberta for the last hundred years," says Campbell, who now serves as president of the Coal Association of Canada.

Campbell

Former environment minister Robin Campbell now serves as the President of the Coal Association of Canada. (Erin Collins/CBC)

He says coal in Alberta has received a bad rap.

"One of the things that we are blessed with is that we have a coal that has a very low sulfur content, very low ash and high BTUs so it burns very clean. And actually, when you look at the emissions that are coming out of the Genesee plant and the new Keephills plant at Wabamun, they are as good as natural gas."

Campbell would like to see more effort put into finding ways to burn coal more cleanly or to capture and store the carbon from generators. 

But for now at least, investing in carbon capture and storage (CCS) isn't in the government's plans. Instead they will rely on natural gas for a stable supply of power while developing the province's renewable sector.

Claudio Cañizares, an engineering professor with the University of Waterloo's Centre for Environmental Information Technology, says the province's plan is a good one from an environmental perspective, but not necessarily an economic one.

"If you look at the problem from cost [alone], gas and coal is the solution and there is not much of a debate there; if you talk to a banker, they would say 'why would you invest in anything else,'" he says.

But Cañizares adds the environmental problems associated with burning coal can no longer be ignored. He says there is an acknowledgement that the time has come to make the switch to greener sources of power generation.

"The electricity system that is most advanced in this sense is the German system in terms of trying to transform solar and wind into firm capacity for the system." 

Germany now gets about a quarter of its power from renewable sources like wind and energy, up from just four per cent in 1990.

But while the Germans are ramping up their use of renewable energy, they also rely heavily on dirty, brown lignite coal, according to David Jacobs, with the Berlin-based firm International Energy Transitions. 

Climate Countdown Greenhouse Gases

Stacks from the E.ON coal-fired power station in Gelsenkirchen, Germany stand out along the skyline. (Martin Meissner/Associated Press)

"Germany is talking about phasing out coal — but in Germany it is much more difficult, probably closer to your situation in Alberta, because the share of coal is pretty large. It [was] about 80 per cent in the 1960s and now it is about 50 per cent or a little bit more."

Jacobs says that Germany needs to fully phase out its use of coal by 2040 in order to meet its climate goals but has no real plan to do it.

It is no easy task and proof that even the "greenest" jurisdictions are struggling to find an affordable stable replacement for hydrocarbons.

And Germany isn't alone: five of the seven richest countries in the world increased the amount of coal they burned between 2009 and 2013. Along with Germany, England, France, Italy and Japan increased the amount of coal they burned by about 15 per cent and have plans to increase that total even more in the coming years.

The solution, at least in the short term, could be finding a way to burn coal more cleanly, according to Wolfgang Rolland. Rolland is with Vattenfall, a Swedish power company that operates several lignite plants in Germany, where the company recently ran a successful CCS pilot project.

"We were sure that we could capture 95 per cent of the CO2, and we were sure that it is comparably cheaper to many other technologies," he says.

For now, Rolland says issues around storage and reliability for renewable energy make coal a necessity in Germany and other industrialized countries. So he says the goal should be to make burning that coal as clean as possible until it can be replaced by renewable energy.

CANADA/

Wind turbines are shown near Pincher Creek, Alta. The province's plan is to replace coal with a mix of natural gas and renewable energy. (Reuters)

According to Rolland, that is why Vattenfall has partnered with SaskPower to work on its Boundary Dam CCS project here in Canada. 

"There will be, over the long term, a reduction and fade out of lignite for sure. And what we have at the moment is a heavy debate in Germany over how long this will last." 

In Alberta, that answer is clear — the clock is ticking for coal.

Back in Forestburg, Alta., Matt Fedun says that firm deadline means an unsettled future for him.

"It is very uncertain and it's hard to deal with day-by-day. You just have to put it in the back of your mind and keep working and away you go."