Renewables or carbon capture? Sask. looks towards future after coal plant phase-out

As the federal government talks about phasing out coal-fired power plants by 2030, the question for Saskatchewan is what that will mean for ratepayers and those currently employed in the industry.

Big change: Sask. gets more than 40 per cent of its power from coal

Saskatchewan is mulling its options after the federal government announced its goal to make 90 per cent of electric power generation free of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

As the federal government talks about phasing out coal-fired power plants by 2030, the question for Saskatchewan is what that will mean for ratepayers and those currently employed in the industry.

"It's probably going to cause the province to shift and make some capital investment," said University of Saskatchewan political studies professor Greg Poelzer. "That will affect the ratepayer." 

Yesterday, the federal government announced its goal to make 90 per cent of electric power generation free of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, accelerating the previous plan by about 10 years. Provinces will be allowed to use technology like carbon capture and storage, as is done at Saskatchewan's Boundary Dam Power Station.

Considering Saskatchewan gets more than 40 per cent of its power from coal, it's going to be a big change.

The question is whether the next step — and capital investment — should be more renewables or more carbon capture and storage. While the province is on track to generate half of its power through renewable sources, it's still not clear where the other half will come from.

"We saw with Boundary Dam 3 that it's a fairly expensive way to generate electricity," said Brett Dolter, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Ottawa. "You're up around 14 cents per kilowatt hour for that power coming from Boundary Dam 3 and we don't necessarily need to go that route."

Underlying this is a bit of tension between Saskatchewan and Ottawa. It's about climate change as much as it's about federal-provincial relations in how it should proceed.- Greg Poelzer, University of Saskatchewan political studies professor

While many supporters of carbon capture and storage worry about job losses attached to renewable energy, Dolter believes there could be economic benefits with renewables as well.

"We've got the best solar reserves in Estevan, where most of the coal plants are. We've got some of Canada's best wind resources all across southern Saskatchewan, which would be in the same area as Poplar River and Coronach," he said. "There's opportunity, then, to ensure those 500 coal miners have a pathway to a job if coal isn't the future."

Poelzer believes a political solution is likely. For example, Nova Scotia has received an exemption to continue to use coal beyond that deadline under a so-called "equivalency agreement."

"A lot is going to depend now on negotiations between the province and the federal government," he said. "It could be through some kind of investment fund. There might be some negotiation around our equalization payments; perhaps we get a credit on those."

Poelzer said the conflict over coal is the latest manifestation of battles between Premier Brad Wall and the federal government.

"Underlying this is a bit of tension between Saskatchewan and Ottawa," he said. "It's about climate change as much as it's about federal-provincial relations in how it should proceed."

With files from CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning