Wind and solar: A robust forecast for renewable energy in Alberta
Lower costs spur growth of wind, solar, while coal-fired electricity generation continues rapid decline
The demise of coal-fired electricity plants in Alberta has been well documented in recent years, but it's happening a lot quicker than some expected. The Alberta government's target to eliminate coal-powered electricity is expected to be achieved seven years ahead of its scheduled date of 2030.
What's happening without much fanfare, though, is the transition from coal to renewable energy sources and the pace of the change.
The Alberta Electric System Operator says of all the electricity generated in the province in 2020, 14 per cent came from renewable energy sources, such as wind, hydro and solar. The number for 2021 is expected in the next few months.
The province's total capacity of renewable energy sources is 23 per cent.
The Canada Energy Regulator (CER) says that number is likely to grow in the coming years, fuelled in part by more investment in renewable energy projects.
The CER predicts the total capacity of renewable energy sources in Alberta will reach 26 per cent by 2023. It expects the province to add "significant" solar capacity, or 1,200 megawatts, by the same year.
The provincial government's Renewable Electricity Act has a legislated target that 30 per cent of electricity generated must come from renewable energy sources by 2030. An interim target for next year is 15 per cent.
RBC predicts that investment in Alberta's renewable energy sector will continue to grow. It points to the Travers Solar Project currently under construction in Vulcan County, southeast of Calgary. The project includes more than one million solar panels that will generate enough electricity to power 150,000 homes.
The RBC report says there are 61 solar projects underway in the province that are expected to be completed by the middle of this decade.
"We believe Alberta is well positioned to attract more investments of this type and size in the years ahead," read the outlook.
Alberta's associate minister of natural gas and electricity said in a statement to the CBC that since 2019, more than $2 billion "worth of utility scale renewable generation projects" have been announced "without making Alberta taxpayers foot the bill."
An assistant professor in the department of economics at the University of Calgary says the RBC outlook highlights a turning point for Alberta.
"I think the RBC report really punctuates that renewables have gone from being a bit of a novelty in the province to something that has economic importance," said Blake Shaffer.
"There's so much investment in wind and solar right now in the province and I don't think it's really broadly known how much is going on."
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Shaffer says the phase-out of coal-fired electricity is spurring the transition, along with lower costs for renewable energy projects.
"If you were following news about five years ago, you'd associate renewables with high costs and big subsidies. That's really not the case anymore," he said. "It's profitable now to build renewables."
As an example, he says the cost to build a wind project is about $30 per megawatt hour, which would generate a healthy return based on current prices.
"The power price in Alberta ranges between $50 … and it's $100 right now. So, you're getting a lot of profits in terms of building those renewables in the province at the moment."
Expanding solar portfolio
Calgary-based ATCO recently announced more moves into the renewable energy sector. The longtime natural gas distribution company purchased the rights to two solar projects in southeast Calgary that will generate enough electricity for 18,000 homes.
It also acquired a smaller solar project in Empress, a village east of Calgary near the Saskatchewan boundary. The project will power 11,000 homes when completed in about a year. The company has one other solar project in Alberta in Fort Chipewyan.
"I'm not at all surprised now with the momentum," said Karen Nielsen, ATCO's managing director of global renewables.
"There's such demand for clean energy as companies and businesses have to fulfil their obligation … whether it's a net zero commitment, or a commitment just to do their part in terms of the broader climate change strategies."
Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.
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