Danielle Smith’s Alberta, the land of energy dinosaurs

Smith doubles down on 20th century by hobbling wind, solar development

On Friday, Alberta replaced a hard moratorium on wind and solar development with a soft one. But what’s even more significant about the new rules for renewable energy is that Premier Danielle Smith has publicly declared war on the energy transition. Alberta is now the place where energy incumbents – electric utilities, oil and gas producers, coal companies – are granted the protection of the state. Protection from the forces of change during a period of intense disruption in the global energy system. This is the worst possible thing Smith could do at the worst possible time.

Sounds apocalyptic? Bit over the top? 

Obviously not within the Alberta context. With one fell swoop she protects the big electric utilities that dominate power generation, the natural gas producers that fuel (60% and growing) their power plants, and she throws red meat to her rural political base. Win, win, win with little political downside. 

Details explained in my interview (below) with Jason Wang of Pembina.

Nor within the Canadian context. Over the past 100 years the provinces built an incredibly successful (84% clean, low cost, reliable) power sector. Canada simply hasn’t felt the pressure to change that system in the same way as the United States, Europe, and Asia, where grids are being re-engineered almost in real time. A few provinces like BC and Quebec are just beginning to plan for the electrification, and the doubling or tripling of power generation that will require, of their economies.

Ottawa is trying to accelerate change by promoting faster decarbonization of provincial grids with clean electricity regulations. Smith has furiously resisted those efforts, with some success, given the Trudeau Government’s willingness to accommodate her concerns.

No, it is the international context that matters here. 

Mention China in insular downtown Calgary and the response is “but, but coal,” as if this somehow invalidates the radical energy changes under way.

Analyst Herbert Crowther of Eurasia Group explains (below) China’s 2020 pivot to clean energy.

China is already well advanced on the energy supply side, making the pivot to clean electricity by building huge solar and wind farms, and building nuclear plants. Last year solar represented most of the new global generation capacity installed and half of it was in China. The country utterly dominates the manufacture of solar panels, batteries, battery metal refining, and electric vehicles that represent the demand side of the energy transition. China is aggressively exporting that energy technology, either directly or indirectly by building factories in other countries.

The Americans and Europeans aren’t oblivious to the winds of change. With the Inflation Reduction Act and several other key pieces of legislation, the United States has signalled its intention to build an electrified economy. Europe was well down this path and is now boosting its clean energy ambition in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Asia outside of China isn’t sitting idle. India and smaller countries like Vietnam and Indonesia are speeding up their transition to clean energy supply and manufacturing.

Electrification is coming for Alberta. Not tomorrow, but soon.

Bloomberg NEF is forecasting peak demand for oil used in the transportation sector, almost half of global consumption, by 2027, with decline setting in soon after. In the not too distant future, that trend will begin to destroy demand for the black gold that powers the Alberta economy.

The global power sector is being utterly transformed by new technologies. We only hear about a few, like wind and solar. There is little public chatter about digitalization, artificial intelligence, grid enhancing tech that permits two or three times as much power to be transmitted on existing lines, virtual power plants, and so much more.

Gerhard Salge, chief technology officer for Hitachi Energy, explains (below) how renewables and new technologies are revolutionizing global power grids.

The energy world is on the cusp of momentous change. That’s why Smith erecting walls around Alberta’s energy incumbents is so wrong. 

She and the energy incumbents have bought into the “slow energy transition” worldview promoted by OPEC and the Saudis. They think peak oil demand is decades away. Energy diversification – the addition of renewables to the status – not transformation and transition, is how they think the 21st century will unfold.

From their point of view, the energy transition is advancing because environmental extremists have hijacked governments around the world. Policy, not technology change, is driving the move away from fossil fuels. They believe China and California and Norway are in for a serious reckoning for their reckless embrace of unreliable and expensive alternative energy. 

Perhaps most importantly, they think participation in the energy transition is optional. If Alberta hunkers down, resists change, supports its incumbents, then the storm will eventually pass. Common sense and economics will reassert themselves and all will be right with the (energy) world. Fossil fuels, mostly oil and gas eventually, will continue to provide 80 per cent of the world’s primary energy.

And Alberta will remain an energy superpower. 

The evidence does not support this view. Much of my journalism explores how dramatically and how quickly the energy transition is accelerating. China is leading, the US, Europe, and some parts of Asia are scrambling to catch up. Economies that fail to see the writing on the wall will be left behind.

Clean, abundant, low cost, reliable electricity is rapidly becoming the foundation of the 21st century economy. 

Policymakers who shield their industries from that change only delay the inevitable. Those who deny this truth court disaster. That’s the real significance of Alberta’s new rules for renewable energy. 

The dinosaurs are in charge of Alberta. Pity they’re oblivious to the meteor headed their way. 


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