Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sask. must do more to lessen coal dependence

SEPTEMBER 14, 2012

When Canada's Environment Minister Peter Kent came to Saskatchewan 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 may 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 these 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 crop lands in the United States 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 that 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 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 has historically been even more coaldependent than Saskatchewan. However, it has now cut its use of coal to 57 per cent from 80 per cent of electricity production in 2006. More large reductions are planned. To accomplish this the province requires 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 also has established Efficiency Nova Scotia to promote electricity conservation.

The work in these two provinces 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 may 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 no doubt will 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.

Prebble is director of environmental policy for the Saskatchewan Environmental Society.

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