In a sign Ottawa is moving ahead on its Atlantic Loop plans, Environment and Climate Change Canada confirmed it is denying New Brunswick’s request to run its Belledune coal plant past 2030.
Floated in the Liberal Party’s 2019 platform, the Atlantic Loop is a policy that ties Atlantic Canada’s power grids together to enable hydropower to flow from Quebec and Labrador into the Maritimes to offset coal-fired power plants.
Meanwhile, Belledune is the heaviest-emitting power plant in Atlantic Canada based on 2019 greenhouse gas emissions data, spewing roughly 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions that year. It’s New Brunswick’s second largest emitter next to the Irving Oil refinery, which created about 2.9 million tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution in 2019.
Despite the federal government’s goal of phasing out “traditional” coal-fired electricity generation by 2030, earlier this year, New Brunswick announced it was pursuing an equivalency agreement with the federal government that would keep Belledune running to 2040. The province wanted to keep the plant going because Crown utility NB Power is struggling under a mountain of debt, and the coal plant has a design life that extends past 2030, meaning to close it earlier adds to the utility’s financial costs.
The province estimated closing in 2030 would force electricity rates to jump 12 to 17 per cent in 2030 and require the build-out of new power generation to replace it, citing this as justification to keep the plant operating.
“Our government is fully committed to phasing out coal-fired electricity by 2030 in all parts of the country, including in New Brunswick,” said ECCC spokesperson Gabriel Brunet.
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs reportedly wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in October requesting Ottawa make at least $5 billion available to help New Brunswick and Nova Scotia phase out coal power.
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“We’re pleased to see recent comments by the New Brunswick government that they are also looking to accelerate the phase-out (of) coal in the province and partner with the federal government on the Atlantic Loop,” said Brunet.
Louise Comeau, director of climate and energy with the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, called the federal confirmation Belledune will close by 2030 “absolutely huge,” adding it’s a signal to other provinces about pursuing signing equivalency agreements.
“I think what really sealed the deal for New Brunswick was that Nova Scotia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, all of whom have several coal plants — not one, like we do — all said they were going to comply,” said Comeau.
“Once you've got those three provinces saying they'll comply it makes it a lot easier for (Ottawa) to say, ‘No, we're not extending to this one outlier,’” she added.
Coal makes up more than 60 per cent of Nova Scotia’s electricity generation, coming from plants like Linga, Trenton, Point Aconi and other generating stations. New Brunswick, on the other hand, gets approximately 40 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, 30 per cent from fossil fuels, including coal, 20 per cent from hydro and the remainder from wind and biomass.
Based on the most recent data from Canada’s Energy Regulator, Alberta gets 49 per cent of its electricity from burning natural gas, 43 per cent from coal and the rest from renewables. Saskatchewan is marginally better, with 43 per cent of its electricity from natural gas, 40 per cent from coal and the rest from renewables.
Among Canada’s 100 top emitters are coal-fired plants in these four provinces. Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam and Poplar River power stations, both owned by Crown utility SaskPower, were the province’s two heaviest-emitting coal plants in 2019, pumping more than five million tonnes and 3.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, respectively, into the atmosphere. In Alberta, the heaviest-emitting coal and natural gas power plants were the Genesee Thermal Generating Station, owned by Capital Power, and the Keephills plant, owned by TransAlta. Genesee emitted more than 8.8 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2019, while Keephills released more than 7.6 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
Co-ordinating the phaseout of fossil fuels will take leadership from the federal government, and Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May says closing Belledune shows why.
“One of the key things this Belledune shutdown should include is moving on establishing an east-west electricity grid, and building up where the interties are a problem,” she said, acknowledging the jurisdictional challenges of provinces having responsibility for electricity generation at the same time federal policies require steep emission cuts.
Still, “making the grid interconnect between provinces is also a key way to ensure that we can use the grid like a giant battery,” she added.
When the sun’s not shining and the wind’s not blowing, the options to keep electricity flowing in a post-fossil fuel world are to rely on reliable sources of generation like hydro dams, battery technologies to store renewable power or far-reaching power grids that can move electrons from where they can be generated to where they’re needed. In Canada, it’s more common for power grids to be stitched north-south with American markets than east-west, where transmission lines would have to span greater distances to reach fewer people.
Phasing out coal power requires long-term energy planning to figure how exactly that electricity will be replaced.
“We need to take this chance to also democratize energy more so that each community, to the greatest extent possible, has solar panels on every roof, has wind turbines in every appropriately sited place, benefits from geothermal wherever possible and feeds it into a grid that takes the energy to where it’s needed,” said May.
Atlantic premiers are interested in the federal Atlantic Loop plan in part because it shifts the cost of decarbonizing off their books, said Comeau.
“The Atlantic Loop is a major infrastructure investment project. There's so much that's got to be done in terms of community consultation and investments and building transmission lines that run through an entire province in less than eight years,” she said.
Comeau explained that because New Brunswick is unlikely to do all the work needed to build the Atlantic Loop by 2030, the province will probably need to add renewable power generation to its mix in the interim instead of banking on being able to import power from other provinces. However, the federal government is aiming for an emissions-free power grid by 2035, of which the Atlantic Loop would play an essential part.
“This conversation needs to have started ages ago under (the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) to talk about free, prior and informed consent on the routing” of the Atlantic Loop, said May.
“It is a big project, it will employ a lot of people, it will modernize Canada; it's an essential piece of reducing our emissions fast, and to do this we need to work with good federal-provincial co-operation,” she said. “But I think it needs to be announced what the vision is, and why it’s critical so there's national public opinion in favour of getting this right, so if one recalcitrant utility says no, there's a public response that says come on, we have to function like a country.”
Conservative climate shadow minister Dan Albas said the federal government should work collaboratively with provinces.
“Provinces know the energy makeup that fits them best, and it’s time the federal government came to the table to support them in the path to make this happen,” he said in a statement.
A recent report from Clean Energy Canada stressed the need for the country to ramp up renewable production and build a national power grid in order to meet emission reduction targets and prepare for a greener global economy.
According to a meeting note Canada’s National Observer received through a federal access-to-information request, over the past 15 years, annual capital spending on electricity generation, transmission and distribution has “hovered in the $20-$25 billion/year range.”
That same note, prepared for Natural Resource Canada officials, recognizes the importance of increasing clean energy generation and notes there are lessons to be learned from Atlantic Loop progress that could aid other “electrification initiatives.”
John Woodside, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer