A study done by a coalition of health and environmental groups says pollution from Alberta's coal-fired power plants is costing the health-care system nearly $300 million each year and leads to nearly 100 premature deaths.
The study from the Pembina Institute, the Lung Association of Alberta and NWT, Asthma Society of Canada and Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment found that pollutants contribute to over 4,000 asthma episodes, over 700 emergency room visits and around 80 hospital admissions each year.
The coalition is recommending that Alberta government phase out coal plants and switch to sources like natural gas, wind and solar power. When health and environmental costs are factored in, the report says coal is the same price as other forms of energy.
"We know now that we have alternative energies that are much cleaner and the bottom line for us is that Albertans are actually subsidizing the coal industry with their health," said report co-author Farrah Khan from the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.
"Albertans are kind of taking the hit here and we don't think that's very fair."
Khan says that Alberta burns more coal than the rest of Canada combined, with 64 per cent of electricity coming from coal.
The report also recommends that Alberta phase-out existing conventional coal plants earlier than the 50 years prescribed by federal regulations.
Energy minister reacts to report
Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes said the province depends much less on coal for power these days and that's a deliberate choice.
"We have taken big steps, even in the last year, to manage [the] greenhouse gas footprint in this province and emissions from coal plants," he said.
"Fiften years ago, coal represented 66 per cent — two-thirds — of the generating capacity of electricity of this province and it's now down to 40 per cent, so there's an evolutionary path that we're on here clearly."
The authors relied on three different models for their study, including one used by the Canadian Medical Association in 2008. But industry representatives believe the report doesn't paint a true picture.
"I was a bit surprised when I read the report that they didn't reference some real studies and data that are available in Alberta around air quality and human health," said Don Wharton from TransAlta, which operates coal-fired plants in the province.
"So that seems to be another important piece to the study."
Wharton says cutting out coal could lead to a 30 to 50 per cent jump in the price of electricity.