Natural gas key to withstanding winter and Ottawa’s assault

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Appeared in the Calgary Sun, January 24, 2024
Natural gas key to withstanding winter and Ottawa’s assault

Mother Nature has reminded everyone that the stakes in the battle to preserve and expand Alberta’s natural gas power production are very high—basically, life or death.

Last week’s polar vortex drove temperatures into record negative territory across western Canada. Nighttime temperatures in Alberta, for example, reached -51 degrees Celsius at Keg River. Without sufficient power for running the heat on high, these are killing temperatures. Demand for electricity in Alberta soared, pushing the power grid toward potential need for rolling blackouts. Only voluntary cutbacks in electricity use by Albertans allowed the system to avoid curtailment.

What did the grid look like last week?

On Jan. 13, according to one report, natural gas generated 80.5 per cent of power on Alberta’s grid followed by coal (7.9 per cent), biomass (2.9 per cent), hydropower (2.5 per cent), solar power (1.3 per cent) and wind (0.99 per cent). But wind and solar’s low combined output was not the major cause of Alberta’s energy crunch last week—two of Alberta’s natural gas power plants were down for maintenance and not generating what they otherwise would have.

And yet, while gas and coal combined produced nearly 90 per cent of Alberta’s life-saving electricity, these fuels remain in the crosshairs of Ottawa and the Trudeau government’s proposal that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electricity production in Canada must decline to “net zero” by 2035.

In the battle over the Trudeau government’s plan, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith argues that Ottawa intends to shut down natural-gas power generation, and because alternatives such as wind and solar power are unaffordable, Alberta will be unable to generate sufficient electricity for Albertans. Meanwhile, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault denies that Ottawa wants to end fossil fuel use and argues that his government’s proposed regulations already allow for natural gas power production, so long as GHG emissions are “mitigated” via carbon capture and storage. Even unmitigated natural gas power would be allowed in emergency situations, according to Guilbeault, who recently accused Premier Smith of “trying to tear Canada down.”

Guilbeault’s argument, however, rests on what he likely knows is a false hope—that carbon capture and storage technology will evolve and be deployed at sufficient speed and capacity to allow Alberta to attain the net-zero emission target by 2035. This is highly unlikely. Carbon capture and storage has many critics including the International Energy Agency (IEA), which recently published a report suggesting that carbon capture and storage is inadequate for capturing carbon dioxide at the scale necessary to reach net-zero emissions by 2035 or beyond. Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, threw cold water on the idea, saying the oil and gas industry must help the “world meet its energy needs and climate goals—which means letting go of the illusion that implausibly large amounts of carbon capture are the solution.”

The potential peril of power outages during a polar vortex shows the importance of ensuring that Alberta has a reliable dispatchable electrical generation capacity able to meet even extreme demand. Wind and solar power, favoured under the Trudeau government’s proposed clean electricity regulations, can’t supply that. Premier Smith is right to bank on natural gas generation for Alberta’s future, and she should stand fast. As remaining coal power plants are closed, natural gas will be the foundation of Alberta’s energy stability and it must be defended.