Alberta renewables moratorium out of synch with American push for more wind, solar

Smith must accept that large-scale wind, solar deployment is inevitable…just like in the US

Alberta has paused wind and solar projects for seven months for a grab bag of reasons. Was it a smart move? Well, what are other jurisdictions doing?

Last week, I sat on the journalists panel for a US Energy Association press technical briefing about how utilities are protecting their power grids from extreme weather, especially heat. The expert panel included four American electricity sector executives: Michael Bryson, Sr. VP – Operations, PJM Interconnection; Barry Ingold, COO, Tri-State Generation and Transmission; Lanny Nickell, EVP and COO, Southwest Power Pool; Morgan Scott, Electric Power Research Institute.

I named the experts and their titles to make the point that these folks are key players as the US re-engineers its aging power grid. Not analysts or academics, but decision-makers. Boy, do they have plenty of issues.

For example, utilities are retiring thermal power plants faster than wind and solar farms can be built. “We have close to 40,000 megawatts of generation that’s cleared the queue, but it’s just not getting built fast enough,” said Bryson, whose Regional Transmission Organization (RTO) covers 13 states in the eastern US. One strategy PJM is pursuing is slowing the retirement of thermal plants to match the construction of renewables, which increasingly include energy storage, usually in the form of batteries.

Matching the retirement of old generators to the construction of new ones seems like a sensible response to disruptive change. Alert readers will note that PJM did not implement a moratorium on renewable energy.

Last winter, a lull in wind left PMJ dangerously short of generating capacity. Imports from other regions narrowly averted a crisis. The lesson the RTO learned, Nickell said, is that there also has to be “dispatchable” generation available.

“It has to be energy that you can count on showing up when you need it, and you get some of that with a diverse portfolio,” he said. “If you add solar, you’re gonna get more that you can count on from renewable energy. If you add battery storage, you get more. But there’s gonna be times when you don’t get as much as you need and you have to have something that’s thermal based, at least for now to replace that until other technologies are developed.”

These are concerns that Alberta can appreciate. And there are strategies the government can consider, like adding east/west interconnections with BC, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba to take advantage of hydro or add battery storage at a faster pace. A 7-month pause in renewables development isn’t required while considering any of the available options. 

The American experience also holds a lesson or two for the Canadian government, which yesterday released its vision for a net-zero electricity system by 2035. The Biden Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are shooting for a similar goal and that means trouble for the thermal plants Nickell says are critical to a smooth transition to clean electricity.

“It’s getting the permitting for the gas emissions,” said Ingold. “That’s the challenge.”

“We have just brought a combined cycle unit online very recently, but the permitting is getting more challenging and some of the proposed EPA rules are gonna put a bite in getting those built as well,” added Bryson.

What stood out to this Canadian journalist is that throughout the hour-long briefing, the executives never argued that wind and solar deployment should be slowed or “paused.” If anything, several hope to see it happen even more quickly. They want to see better planning, more flexible federal regulations, more robust supply chains, and overall more support for a sector that is experiencing intense disruptions from policy and technology change. 

The American power sector appears to have, for the most part, accepted that a clean, modern power grid is essential to a 21st century economy.

This view stands in stark contrast to Alberta leaders. “We are a natural gas province and we will continue to build natural gas power plants because that is what makes sense in Alberta,” Premier Smith said at the RMA convention in March. Rob Anderson, executive director of the Premier’s office, has made many disparaging remarks about renewables. Read my recent column, Alberta’s political, business elites have misread the global energy transition, for context.

The plain truth is that Alberta is out of sync with the rest of the world on energy. Including the United States. 

I’ve participated in a number of US Energy Association press briefings with American utility executives and the tone of the conversation is radically different. They get it. Some get it more than others. Some states and regions are better suited to a fast transition than others. 

But, from the comments during these briefings, and interviews I’ve conducted with American experts and executives, the US has accepted the inevitability of the energy transition and the shift to clean electricity.

Perhaps it’s time for Smith and her UCP government, not to mention business leaders and conservative supporters, to accept the inevitable in Alberta. 

Before it’s too late.

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