Power Generation in Alberta: Changing the mix.

Solar Power plants in Spain

Solnova Solar Power Station, Spain/Abengoa Solar

Our new government here in the resource rich province of Alberta intends to diversify the energy sources used in the large scale generation of electricity. The primary reason is to attack the issue of climate change and associated global warming. While this is an admirable goal, it won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap.

The present energy mix is primarily coal with some natural gas. Hydro-electric contributes a small amount and wind is increasingly being used, but once again still contributes a small amount of the total energy requirements. Nuclear power is not in use in Alberta.

Coal
Alberta is rich in deposits of coal, so much so that it exports large amounts. Most of the coal found in Alberta is low in sulphur. Therefore it burns comparatively clean and doesn’t pollute to the same extent as other types of coal. The coal is found close to the plants so transportation cost is low and the mining technique is open-pit so extraction costs are low.

All newer coal-fired generating plants use what is referred to as “clean coal burning technology”. In this method the coal is pulverized into a dust before combustion which effectively increases the surface area of the fuel (coal). Combustion efficiency is increased so that close to 99% is burned making for much less pollution and green-house gases (GHG) leaving the stacks at the plants.

Coal in Alberta is the most cost-efficient fuel for the generation of electricity. The downside is that even with the cleaner technology it results in higher pollution and GHG release than other fuels.

Natural Gas
Alberta is rich in natural gas. We have an abundant supply, enough so that we export large amounts. A transportation infrastructure is in place already. Natural gas is one of the cleanest burning and most efficient fuels in the world. For example, converting a coal-fired plant to natural gas would immediately result in 50% less GHG being emitted and close to zero pollution from the combustion.

However, converting existing coal-fired plants to natural gas is difficult. In fact it will likely be necessary to build new plants and mothball or demolish the coal plants.

Hydro-Electric
Alberta doesn’t have many more suitable sites to construct dams and associated generating plants. This is not an option to replace coal in my opinion. Even if sites could be found public opinion is against daming rivers and flooding land.

Solar
The sun, our star, has great promise and seemingly unlimited power for the taking. Definitely worth exploring, but it too has several downsides.

Although Alberta is know for its sunny days, the sun doesn’t shine anywhere near as often as other climates such as southern California or Africa for example. It obviously doesn’t shine at night, so the plants don’t produce power during these times. Energy has to be used when it is produced, it is difficult to store energy using present technologies. This is a problem for the grid which must furnish power on an as needed basis. The other problem is the vast tracts of land needed for a large scale solar power generating plant. I don’t see any areas here that the general population would be willing to cover with the large number of solar panels needed to replace coal or natural gas generating plants.

Wind
Once again great promise and as long as the wind blows power is generated. Downsides include the large number of wind turbines required to produce the required amounts of power for Albertans. The wind doesn’t always blow, so again power generation would be intermitant. The wind turbines we see in southern Alberta and in many places in the United States require regular and frequent maintenance. Large tracts of land are also needed to erect these wind farms. Environmentalists and others protest the appearance of these machines and also the land use required. I see wind as a viable source of power for Alberta, but only as part of the overall power production.

Nuclear
This is actually one of the  cleanest methods of producing large amounts of electricity. The downside is two-fold, one is the disposal of radioactive waste and two safety or the consequences of an accident. The nuclear plants of today are extremely safe to operate, but the consequences of an accident can be catastrophic. Accidents have occurred. Three-Mile Island in the States was almost of an unthinkable magnitude. The inquiry found human error and outdated equipment were the contributers. This was also true for Chernobyl in Russia which did result in a large number of fatalities and the sterilization of many square miles of the country. The nuclear plants that failed in Japan weren’t protected adequately from earthquakes and tsunamis. Nuclear power for Alberta? I think not, Too many safer alternatives and the entire issue of nuclear is just too emotional. Even the word gets some people thinking of mutants and glowing in the dark.

In summary I believe that alternative sources of energy should  developed. It’s not a bad thing to diversify the sources and methods of providing electrical power to individual Albertans and industry in the province. New technologies will be needed to perfect these methods and an orderly transition will be needed to keep up with power demand in Alberta. There is also opportunity for Alberta to be involved in the development of many of these new technologies. However, Albertans must realize this won’t happen overnight.

Note: Constructive comments are always appreciated.

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