Power Generation in Alberta: Changing the mix.

February 16, 2016
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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Energy and Human Impacts: Can we sustain our lifestyle and protect the environment?

July 16, 2015
Alberta in her magnificence. Gov. of Alberta photo

Alberta in her magnificence. Gov. of Alberta photo

Disclaimer: I have been employed in various aspects of the energy industry since 1977. The views expressed in this article are mine and mine alone.

Overview:

We humans need energy to power our lives and sustain our lifestyle. The challenge is to provide relatively cheap energy in an environmentally clean and a safe manner. Human population is increasing and so is the demand for energy. The Province of Alberta, Canada where I live is resource-rich. Human development of any type results in a footprint and impacts. Sustainable development means doing the utmost to minimize the impacts.

Energy in Alberta:
Oil (2013)
– Canada has the third largest oil reserves in the world, 97% of these are in the oil sands of Alberta.
– Alberta exports 2,000,000 barrels/day of crude oil to the United States.
– To the rest of Canada it exports 323,000 barrels/day.

Natural Gas (2013)
– Established reserves 32 trillion cubic feet.
– Alberta produces 10.1 billion cubic feet/day.

Coal (2013)
– Established reserves 33.4 billion tonnes.
– Alberta produces 27.9 million tonnes/year.

Where Does Alberta get its Electrical Generating Capacity? (2013)
– Total is 14,003 megawatts (MW).
– Coal power 42%.
– Natural Gas 41%.
– Renewable/Alternate 17% (wind, solar and hydro-electric)

Revenue to Government of Alberta (2014/15 Budget)
– Total government revenue from all sources $44.354 billion.
– Non-renewable Resource Revenue $9.209 billion or 20.76% of the total.

oil-sands-pic

Meeting the Challenges:

Greenhouse Gases (GHG)
-Federal and Provincial Governments and industry are working cooperatively to reduce these.
– Using natural gas in place of coal reduces GHG emissions by roughly 50%.
– Wind power is growing in Alberta and other jurisdictions. Alberta is blessed (or cursed) with strong steady winds, especially in the south.

Protecting the Environment
– The oil and gas industry in Alberta is the most highly regulated in the world.
-All mining operations including in the oil sands must be reclaimed to their natural states. This is a regulatory requirement, not an option. Reclamation is on-going as an area is mined.
– Environmental protection is a priority and a requirement for all projects in all industries within Alberta.

Wind turbine in SW Alberta. Photo by SB Davis

Wind turbine in SW Alberta. Photo by SB Davis

Consumers/Individual’s Role in Energy Sustainability
– As consumers of energy we can all work to reduce the impact by using energy more efficiently therefore reducing demand. Reduce, reuse, and recycle.
– We must educate ourselves about the energy industry and how we use energy in our everyday lives.
– Get involved in issues that affect you. Understand all sides of the problems.

Summary:

As an Albertan I’m proud of my province and the contributions it makes to Canada and the world. I don’t pretend the oil and gas industry is perfect, but further investigation will demonstrate they are concerned and making serious efforts to reduce the impacts.

Further Reading:
Alberta Energy (Government of Alberta)
http://www.energy.alberta.ca/

Alberta Energy Regulator (formerly the ERCB)
http://www.aer.ca

Clean Air Strategic Alliance (CASA)
http://casahome.org

National Energy Board of Canada (NEB)
http://www.neb-one.gc.ca/index-eng.html

Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP)
http://www.capp.ca

Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA)
http://www.cosia.ca

Canadian Energy Pipeline Association
http://www.cepa.com


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