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Clean Electricity Bully: Alberta Fakes a Crisis to Pick a Fight with Ottawa
There's no published data to back her claim of an impending power shortage. But being a schoolyard bully like Danielle Smith means never having to show your work.
All of us remember the schoolyard bully from grade school. Too many of us still carry the scars, mental and physical, years and decades later.
Now, if you’re working on the energy transition, emission reductions, and climate justice in Canada, you’re up against a schoolyard bully every day.
Back then, even if we were never in that bully’s direct line of sight, we knew their deal. They were only happy when they were fighting. They wouldn’t take yes for an answer because the fight, not the resolution, was their goal and their purpose. So if anyone came up with an answer to their ridiculous demands, they would just tilt the rules and keep on fighting.
The only thing that made them happier was when they could recruit some other kid in the yard to do their dirty work. Or do their homework for them.
That’s the dangerous game Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is playing with the electricity grid her province depends on, and the federal Clean Electricity Regulations we’re all counting on to help slash Canada’s climate pollution. I have no idea how Smith treated people when she was in school. But if she was a good kid then, she’s making up for it now.
And if this bully doesn’t get her way, she won’t stop at taking down the Alberta grid. At least at the level of political optics, she’s threatening to take down the whole country.
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Entering the Fact-Free Zone
In early August, Smith slapped a seven-month moratorium on new renewable energy development, costing her province $33 billion in project activity and 24,000 jobs, at a time when Alberta was leading the country in solar and wind development. Then this week, the premier escalated her fight against the Clean Electricity Regulations, with over-the-top claims that the draft rules released in August by federal Environment and Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault will leave Albertans freezing in the dark.
It was a curious thing to worry about after mounting a deliberate attack on the province’s most affordable, easily available new energy sources.
Guilbeault “has sketched out a future where hydroelectricity, solar, wind power, and a transnational network of intertie lines power nearly all Canada's ovens, TVs, and electric vehicles—bolstered by heavy federal investment and [with] minimal economic disruption anywhere,” writes CBC news analyst Jason Markusoff. “Smith casts it all in literally darker terms, with flash-forwards to deeply cold, windless nights when there's no juice to heat entire swaths of Edmonton and Calgary.”
Markusoff adds that “the pitched and alarmed advertising appears not only on placards at Smith's news conference, but will also go on billboards around Canada, wrapped advertising on commuter trains, and even on a truck that rolled through downtown Ottawa on Thursday.”
So, sure, still with today’s bullying theme—why not hire a diesel truck to send an evidence-free, trumped-up message against an essential national climate strategy, in Ottawa neighbourhoods still recovering from the diesel-fumed trauma of last year’s convoy occupation?
Smith’s hyperbole traced back to a briefing (emphasis on brief) released Thursday by the Alberta Electricity System Operator (AESO), an independent agency responsible for managing the power grid and “enabling the transformation of the province's electricity sector while ensuring reliable, affordable power.”
In a thin, two-page summary backed by a four-page media briefing and a couple of PowerPoint files, the regulator dropped a bombshell. It asserted with very little published backing that the new rule “creates significant reliability risk when the CER comes into effect in 2035” and itemized a series of technical problems with the federal approach.
“Regardless of how much intermittent wind and solar Alberta has, the provincial grid will need sufficient dispatchable generation to meet the cold, dark winter nights that we have in this province and form our peak load conditions,” CEO Michael Law told his first-ever news conference. “As the operator of Alberta’s electricity system, we cannot and will not let that happen.”
It was a bold statement that contradicted much of the recent modelling and analysis on Alberta’s future electricity options. Including the AESO’s.
A couple of hours later, Smith challenged Ottawa to postpone implementation of the Clean Electricity Regulations from 2035 to 2050 or force her to enact her government’s Sovereignty Act to “build a fence around our constitutional jurisdiction”. And as any self-respecting schoolyard bully would understand—why not? Why stop at dropping a bomb on your province’s best chance at a reliable, affordable, carbon-free power grid when you can trigger a full-blown constitutional crisis?
Freezing in the Dark? Hardly.
Maybe there’s a simple explanation. Maybe the AESO decided Thursday was Opposites Day, another fine schoolyard tradition, and the rest of us just didn’t get the memo.
That would explain the gap between Law’s media conference and the actual opportunities ahead for the Alberta grid.
In June, a 67-page modelling report by the Calgary-based Pembina Institute and the University of Alberta pointed to six different pathways for Alberta to decarbonize its grid, affordably and reliably.
“With an abundance of renewable resources readily available for electricity generation, Alberta has a clean energy advantage,” Pembina declared at the time. “Our modelling shows wind, solar, and existing hydro could supply 45 to 58% of the province’s electricity demand by 2035.”
With all the other tools in the province’s clean energy toolbox—from energy efficiency, to energy storage, to power trading with adjacent grids—all the scenarios showed [pdf] Alberta becoming a net electricity exporter by 2025.
The analysis concluded that decarbonizing the province’s grid would cost $22 to $35 billion less between 2022 and 2035 than the AESO’s previous predictions, saving the average household more than $600 per year in electricity costs.
Those numbers match up nicely with initial data from RenuWell, a pilot project to clean up two abandoned oil and gas sites in rural Alberta and convert them to solar farms. The project delivered new job skills for 15 fossil industry and Indigenous workers and affordable electricity to local farmers who were paying top dollar to power their irrigation systems in the face of climate change-induced drought.
So far, project founder Keith Hirsche told me yesterday, the two sites are right on target, producing enough electricity to irrigate 11,000 acres at a cost of 5¢ per kilowatt-hour—compared to an Alberta power pool price of 16¢. That’s after Clean Energy Canada reported earlier this year that wind and solar farms with battery backup were already cheaper to build than natural gas power plants in both Ontario and Alberta, with the price of the renewable options expected to fall another 40% by 2035.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
The dose of reality in Pembina’s modelling, not to mention RenuWell’s hands-on experience, made the AESO’s warnings this week of a grid reliability risk by 2035 “a big claim to be issued in a two-page report,” said Jason Wang, a senior analyst in Pembina’s electricity program. “Over the last few months, the Government of Alberta has continued to argue that decarbonizing the grid by 2035 is not possible for the province, yet it has released no analysis, modelling results, or data supporting these claims.”
The province did commission, but never published, a $300,000 modelling study on the CER’s costs and benefits to Alberta. Those provincial taxpayers’ dollars went to Ottawa-based ICF Consulting, a reputable firm with long, deep roots in clean energy policy that presumably didn’t reach the damning conclusions that Smith’s government was looking for.
The AESO’s behaviour “doesn’t meet the standard for a neutral, fact-based, independent electricity system operator,” Wang told The Energy Mix, and his comments suggested they were very much out of character for the agency.
“Their mandate is to operate an electricity grid to ensure reliability, and that’s something they’ve done a great job at,” he said. While the AESO’s forecasts and modelling for future renewable energy uptake have been needlessly conservative, they’re hardly alone in that—and it’s an issue on which they’ve engaged with Pembina and others.
By contrast, this week’s AESO release “lacks transparency, it’s not technology-neutral,” and “it’s a departure from their previous assessments and approaches,” Wang said. Just last year, the grid operator reported that Alberta’s current electricity system could reach net-zero emissions. In June, the AESO laid out pathways to meet the expectations that were later built into the Clean Electricity Regulations. No one thought the transition would be easy, Wang recalled, but “the AESO’s mandate is to look at what those issues might be, then figure out how to solve the challenges.”
The AESO media office didn’t respond to an email asking when they plan to show their homework by releasing their modelling results—or how Smith’s inflammatory rhetoric reflects on their independence as the province’s grid operator.
The other unknown, Wang said, is why the AESO is making such a big deal about a relatively small shortfall in power production if Alberta is forced to shut down its high-emitting power plants in 2035, and if it takes no steps over the next dozen years to anticipate and solve the problem. The figure in the agency’s two-page backgrounder, 36,000 megawatt-hours, sounds like a lot of power. But when you do the math, it’s just 4,000 megawatts of new generating capacity that the province would have 12 years to find. Considerably more, recognizing that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, but that’s where the grid would turn to other tools like efficiency, storage, demand response, grid interties, and more.
Spoiling for a Fight
But if Alberta’s future power supplies were really as fragile as the AESO claims, it would raise a bigger question. If grid reliability is a serious enough concern for Danielle Smith to declare a new policy war with the federal government, what would possess her to shut down new solar and wind projects in her province for more than half a year, driving a spike through the investor confidence that had made Alberta a renewables success story, in a move that blindsided the renewable energy industry and “ghosted” rural mayors who disagreed?
Already, in just two months, Smith’s moratorium has cost Alberta an estimated 1,800 megawatts of renewable energy projects that were practical, affordable, and ready to roll.
None of it makes sense unless the policy war was the purpose, not the outcome, of the AESO’s policy-based evidence-making. And if that’s right, anyone who ever spent time in a schoolyard as a child knows what to do.
We know the bully won’t change their behaviour as long as they think they can get away with it.
That they’ll keep winning as long as they can pick us off one at a time.
And that if we hide in the corner of the yard, just trying to stay safe, they’ll find us eventually.
So let’s all be grateful that Guilbeault is standing his ground, declaring yesterday that while the Clean Electricity Regulations can be tweaked, but there will be no special deal for Alberta.
“I would call on Premier Smith to work with us constructively to ensure that these regulations are the most efficient for all Canadians,” he told media yesterday. “How fair would it be for... the rest of the federation if we started carving out exceptions for provinces?”
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Mitchell Beer traces his background in renewable energy and energy efficiency back to 1977, in climate change to 1997. Now he and the rest of the Energy Mix team scan 1,200 news headlines a week to pull together The Energy Mix, The Energy Mix Weekender, and our newest weekly e-digest, Cities & Communities.
You can also bookmark our website for the latest news throughout the week.
Graphic of the Week
Emissions from Oil And Gas, Buildings Undercut Canada’s Climate Progress (440 Megatonnes/Canadian Climate Institute)
Close the Loopholes in Canada's Draft Clean Electricity Regulations (Ontario Clean Air Alliance)
Scale up renewable energy co-operatives to energize the nation (Policy Options)
With eyes on an emerging wind hydrogen industry, N.L. trade schools gear up to train the work force (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)
Solar delivers for the Texas grid: Reliable output at peak demand
(Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis)
Permafrost slump near Alaska Highway in Yukon eats up 13 more metres of land (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)