Electricity analyst says Alberta has reasonable deadline to get off coal

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley holds a virtual town hall with students to discuss the climate, Wednesday, March 16, 2016. Brad Gowan, Global News

EDMONTON — The man hired to move Alberta away from coal-fired electricity says while it’s a complex challenge, time is on the side of the province.

Terry Boston said Thursday that with a deadline of 2030, there’s enough lag time to craft solutions that work best for the industry, ensure fair and consistent rates for taxpayers, and keep the system running.

“Between now and 2030 we have a lot of time to analyze and to take the corrective action,” Boston told reporters in a conference call.

As part of its climate change plan, Alberta is shutting down coal-fired electricity generation by 2030 for health reasons and to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Twelve of Alberta’s 18 coal-fired generating units are already expected to be shut down by then, so the focus of Boston’s work will be on the remaining six.

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READ MORE: Alberta outlines plan for transitioning to renewable energy

Boston, who is from Tennessee, recently retired as the head of PJM Interconnection, which is the second largest centrally dispatched power system in the world.

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He will be paid up to $600,000 and will deliver a list of options to the government by the fall.

“What I would see is not a heavy report, but a list of alternatives that Alberta could implement, highlighted (by) a best alternative in terms of what’s best for the citizens of Alberta,” said Boston.

“(And the plan must) ensure the reliability of (keeping) the lights on, or nothing else we do will matter.”

READ MORE: Alberta hires energy executive as point person for plan to transition off coal

By 2030, the plan is to have two-thirds of Alberta’s coal generation capacity replaced by renewable energy. One third will be replaced by natural gas.

There are eight coal mines operating in Alberta. Five mines produce coal for the province’s electricity sector.

In 2013 the electricity sector accounted for 17 per cent of Alberta’s total GHG emissions. Most of that came from coal-fired generation.

Boston said the coal-reduction plan “will be a challenge because people have good, on-the-ground, long-term assets that they expect a return on.

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“And at the same time as you move from one energy source to another you better make sure you don’t move too fast and (that) it’s logically done.”

Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous has said he will be working and meeting over the next few months with people in the communities that will be affected when the transition from coal occurs.

The opposition Wildrose party is calling for the province to take a step back and complete a full economic analysis to make sure that the grid changes don’t send power prices soaring or lead to massive job losses.

In question period on Thursday, Wildrose Leader Brian Jean said hiring Boston now with a tight timeline suggests Premier Rachel Notley’s government doesn’t really have a handle on the economic consequences of the coal phase-out plan.

“I doubt anyone can develop a plan to shut down coal plants and get replacement electricity in just six short months,” said Jean.

“It seems that the government set a policy and is only now trying to figure out if it’s possible or even advisable to implement it.”

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