Monday, September 17, 2012

Saskatchewan coal-fired power plants fuel pollution

Interesting article by Peter Prebble in The Leader-Post today:

When federal Environment Minister Peter Kent came to Saskatchewan earlier this month to announce Canada's new greenhouse gas emission regulations for coal-fired power plants, the results were disappointing for anyone concerned about the well-being of our environment.

The new regulations are a significant weakening of what was originally presented to the public in draft form 13 months ago. Over the next 18 years, they will result in greenhouse gas pollution at Canada's coal-fired generating stations being cut by less than half the amount originally proposed by Ottawa.

That announcement might have been satisfactory for SaskPower and the operators of Alberta's coal-fired power plants, but it is not in the larger public interest. Greenhouse gas pollutants from coal-fired power plants are the single most important reason why climate change on our planet is accelerating.

At a time when we have record sea-ice melt in the Arctic, devastating drought in more than 60 per cent of U.S. crop lands and record extreme weather events around the globe, it should be clear to policy makers that the heat-trapping greenhouse gas pollutants from burning coal need to be strictly regulated.

Unfortunately, it appears Ottawa's new regulations are heavily focused on accommodating the desire of governments in Saskatchewan and Alberta to keep burning coal. Meanwhile, in the rest of Canada, coal-fired power plants are steadily being shut down.

Two interesting examples are Ontario and Nova Scotia. In Ontario, the government has closed six of its 15 coal-fired power units over the past two years to curb pollution. It has done this by increasing electricity generation from natural gas, tripling wind power since 2008, building several solar power plants, and introducing conservation measures aimed at cutting electricity use during peak periods of the day.

Nova Scotia historically has been even more coal dependent than Saskatchewan. However, it has now cut its use of coal from 80 per cent of electricity production in 2006 to 57 per cent today. More large reductions are planned. To accomplish this, Nova Scotia is requiring that 40 per cent of its electricity come from renewable energy sources by 2020, up from 17 per cent in 2011. Its government has put in place generous financial incentives to encourage small-scale, community-owned renewable energy production. It has also established Efficiency Nova Scotia to promote electricity conservation.

Ontario and Nova Scotia's work means they are already doing much better than the new federal regulations on coal-fired power plants will require.

In contrast, for our population size, Saskatchewan is dedicating fewer resources to electricity efficiency and renewable energy development. Saskatchewan's greenhouse gas pollution from electricity production is unchanged from 2006. Coal accounts for 58 per cent of the electricity we consume, while wind accounts for only three per cent.

To date, the Saskatchewan plan is to keep using coal and to rely heavily on carbon capture and storage (CCS) as the way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That approach might work, but there is uncertainty, as CCS technology at a commercial scale is in its infancy. Moreover, at $1.2 billion for the first unit, CCS installation is very expensive, thus slowing down the pace of pollution reduction.

Saskatchewan will no doubt be able to meet Ottawa's weak greenhouse gas emission regulations, but our province would be wise to aim higher. A more proven course of action would be to invest heavily in renewable energy and electricity conservation, as a complement to our CCS initiative.

With a greenhouse gas pollution footprint more than three times the Canadian average (per million people), Saskatchewan can no longer delay the task of reducing our dependence on coal.
 
Peter Prebble is director of environmental policy for the Saskatchewan Environmental Society. He has authored and co-authored publications on climate change and renewable energy potential in Saskatchewan.

Source: The Regina Leader-Post, september 17, 2012 edition

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