Alberta's switch to renewable electricity generation will be a challenge, economist says

Alberta’s goal of phasing out coal-fired electricity by 2030 in favour of cleaner sources stands a better chance of succeeding if policy makers don’t take an either-or attitude about renewables and natural gas generation, a Calgary economist says.

University of Calgary researcher Kent Fellows says natural gas, renewables should be seen as complementary

Coal-fired power plants will be phased out of Alberta's energy landscape by 2030 under the province's new climate change plan (Reuters)

Alberta's goal of phasing out coal-fired electricity by 2030 in favour of cleaner sources stands a better chance of succeeding if policy makers don't take an either-or attitude about renewables and natural gas generation, a Calgary economist says.

Alberta's new climate change plan calls for the province to decommission its fleet of coal-fired power plants by 2030, with two thirds of the capacity to be replaced by renewable energy and one third by natural gas.

There are lessons Alberta can learn from the experience in California, which is further along in the transition to renewable sources of electricity, Kent Fellows, a research associate with the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, told the Calgary Eyeopener

He co-authored a paper called "The Challenge of Integrating Renewable Generation in the Alberta Electricity Market," which arose from a 2015 roundtable and panel discussion at the school with 40 stakeholders and experts.

The NDP government's plan calls for two thirds of the generation capacity of the shuttered coal plants to be replaced by renewable energy and one third by natural gas. (Canadian Press)

"They've managed to get a lot of wind and solar onto the grid down there, in terms of generation capacity, which is nice," he said.

"But part of the reason they've been successful in getting those technologies on the grid is because they have very high electricity costs."

Fellows says a key insight reached at the 2015 roundtable "was the assertion that if we are willing to pay anything it takes to reduce carbon emissions, then we are willing to pay too much."

Because solar and wind power generation both have an inherent problem of intermittency, Alberta must remain open to balancing those forms of generation on the grid with natural-gas fuelled power.

Renewables and natural gas complementary 

"The big take away for me is, really, to stop thinking about natural gas and renewable generation as substitutes for each other," Fellows said.

"I think we have to get out of that headspace and start thinking of them as complements to each other. That we build this wind and solar, but we also need these thermal sources, these natural gas plants, to back that up so that we have a nice, stable grid, and we can do this in the most cost-effective manner."

Ensuring the power grid can always meet demand is another big challenge Alberta will face as it integrates more renewable sources of electricity, Fellows says.

"As an example, one of the first things I did when I got up this morning was turn on the coffee pot. I like using electricity in the morning. Right now, where I am, the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining," he said.

"So, we'd need something else to be powering that use. But if the wind started blowing, we'd have to take whatever's powering current electricity use offline, to be able to bring that wind online. And it's really in those transitional uses that we run into issues."

Given that Alberta's electricity generation market is largely private, there was also a consensus at the 2015 roundtable that there will need to be some structural reforms.

"A common sentiment among participants was that any serious achievement in further integrating renewables into the Alberta electricity grid would likely best be driven by some degree of market restructuring," the paper said. 


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener