A provincial climate summit in Calgary last week dove deep into what it will take to decarbonize the Alberta grid by 2035, while shining a light on the provincial policy gaps that are standing in the way.
In a keynote appearance, Premier Danielle Smith held fast to her belief that Alberta’s grid can’t bring its emissions to net-zero by 2035, dismissing the notion as “fantasy thinking” before an audience of climate advocates, experts, and leaders gathered to discuss the province’s clean energy future.
“My principal job is to have a reliable energy grid,” Smith said, adding that a 2050 goal would be more realistic. This mid-century goal aligns with the federal government’s overall target, reports The Canadian Press, though not with a national climate plan that depends on earlier moves to decarbonize the grid. Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson—who spoke separately at the summit—maintains a net-zero grid by 2035 is achievable in Alberta.
Smith and Wilkinson’s disagreement on the target date pointed to the broader political struggle between Alberta and Canada: energy and policy autonomy versus nation-wide decarbonization.
Smith’s position also clashed with the tone from many other participants, including Blackfoot Elder Casey Eagle Speaker of the Kainai Nation/Blood tribe, who opened the conference earlier in the day. “Turtle Island is our community,” Eagle Speaker said. “We each have a dream, a utopian state of mind of what it could be.”
“Well, that’s not an impossibility to create when you bring that from your heart and realize future generations, your descendants, are going to be dependent upon the decisions that are made today.”
Three hours later, Smith was invited onstage to defend Alberta’s pause on new renewable projects, put in place till February, 2024. She said the moratorium was not meant as an attack on Ottawa, though that was how “it was characterized.”
“When we bring on wind and solar, we have to be able to keep the lights on,” she said, citing eight separate incidents of level-three alerts on the grid in one year to illustrate instability due to a lack of baseload power—despite existing solar and wind capacity. The moratorium was also meant to ensure that appropriate policy and planning accompany any new renewables projects, Smith added.
Grid Reliability, Not ‘Fantasy Thinking’
Explaining her reluctance to agree to a 2035 clean energy target, Smith said: “We would have to build four hydroelectric dams the size of Churchill Falls by 2035 to be net-zero. Does anyone think it would be possible?”
To which the audience answered, “yes”, with one participant adding, “it doesn’t have to be just that.” There was applause as audience members challenged Smith on her assertions that wind and solar is unreliable, and that battery storage is too expensive.
“We need legitimate, real solutions that rely on baseload power rather than fantasy thinking,” Smith argued back. “And I’m not even going to engage in fantasy thinking and say something is possible when I know that my principal job is to have a reliable energy grid.”
But if reliability is the goal, and fantasy thinking is to be avoided, the premier might need to give energy storage a more serious look.
“Storage will play a key role in decarbonizing Alberta’s electricity sector,” Evan Wilson, Vice President of Policy for Western Canada and Federal Affairs at the Canadian Renewable Energy Association (CanREA), told The Energy Mix in an email. Citing the Snowmass, Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute, he added that “storage technologies can provide 13 key services for electricity grids, including capacity, peak shaving, voltage support, frequency regulation, transmission and distribution congestion management, regulating reserve, spinning reserve, black start, time shift, demand charge reduction, and backup power.”
During her conference appearance, Smith maintained that reaching a net-zero grid by 2035 would depend heavily on carbon capture and storage (CCS), small modular nuclear reactors, and direct air capture, which is still in its infancy. All of these take time to develop, she noted. (In contrast to the technologies she’d just dismissed that are practical, ready for prime time, less expensive in Alberta than a new gas plant built today, and were leading the country in deployment before she introduced a moratorium that rural mayors didn’t particularly want and cost her province projects worth C$33 billion and 24,000 jobs—Ed.)
In his remarks to the summit, Wilkinson confirmed Smith’s assertion that Alberta is trying to find common ground with Ottawa towards decarbonizing the grid. Canada’s Clean Electricity Regulations, which Smith vocally opposed, were proposed as a draft, he said, and “we were open to engaging in conversations about flexibility that might be needed specifically in some of the jurisdictions to ensure it is actually doable.”
“We all have an interest in a grid that is reliable and affordable,” Wilkinson added. “The idea that the federal government somehow wants to see blackouts in Alberta, wants to see electricity rates double in Alberta, well, that’s just nonsense.”
Alberta Operating in a ‘Bubble’
Chris Severson-Baker, executive director of the summit host, the Calgary-based Pembina Institute, warned in a later session that Smith’s government was taking a big risk “by ignoring what’s actually going on outside our Alberta bubble.”
“Every jurisdiction in the world who can get to net-zero quickly is going to be in a better position,” Severson-Baker said. “We put out a report on how you can get to net-zero by 2035 and actually push down the rates that consumers are paying for electricity.”
But “we’re not really preparing ourselves for that scenario, where there’s a significant change in demand for oil and gas.”
Several other speakers traced successful partnerships that are advancing decarbonization. Mihskakwan James Harper of Toronto-based NRStor described his company’s battery storage facility in Ontario, the largest of its kind in Canada. He pointed to “the beauty of everyone working together, provincial-federal governments, meaningful inclusion of the Indigenous communities and the private sector,” adding that “this is a model of where we need to go in Alberta.”
Edmonton City Councillor Keren Tang cited the city’s recent rezoning decisions as one of the “most impactful tools we have” to address climate change. But “cities can’t do it alone,” Tang added. “We need higher levels of government, and First Nations governments.”
In a separate panel, Paul McLauchlin, president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, said his organization did not ask for a renewables moratorium, but he’s now hopeful on behalf of the communities he represents. “You may not have heard, but in Alberta, oil and gas companies don’t have to pay their taxes,” McLauchlin said “My sector has lost a half-billion dollars in taxes, and you know who has come along to save the day? It’s the renewables industry.”
But there are land use issues to be addressed, he added. “We need to have a conversation about arable land in a drying future. We need more arable land, not less.”
Skills Gap a Looming Problem
Labour shortages came up in several panel discussions, with representatives from both unions and private companies reiterating the importance of centring decision-making on future workforce requirements. Unlike other provinces, “no conversations are happening in a meaningful way with workers” about the energy transition in Alberta, said Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress.
Alberta’s workers have crossover skills that make sense in renewables as well as oil and gas, said Kim Carter of BluEarth Renewables. But at the same time, Alberta has seen a huge dip in skilled trades enrolment, noted Janet Annesley, board member at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. “It’s starting to come back…but more people need to be encouraged to go into the skilled trades.”
A panel on finance and investment discussed whether more transparency was needed for “people around boardroom tables,” as Peter Tertzakian of ARC Energy Research Institute called those looking to invest in renewables.
And there was broad consensus that carbon pricing is terrible at encouraging investment in innovation.
Danny Cullenward, an American climate economist, lawyer, and co-author of Making Climate Policy Work, said he was nervous about coming to Canada to speak on this topic. “It’s fairly rare to see this level of carbon pricing anywhere else,” he said, adding presciently that “the risk of policy reversal is very significant.”
The Royal Bank of Canada’s Jennifer Livingstone said blended financing should be more prevalent. Cullenward agreed, adding it “worked fairly well” when there was stimulus funding under President Barack Obama’s administration in the U.S.
“That’s how you ‘do risk,’” he said.