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The common sense proposition of phasing out Alberta's coal plants

Right across Canada and around the world, jurisdictions are moving away from coal-fired electricity generation in favour of cleaner options, and this critical debate has finally come to the mainstream in Alberta.

The Alberta NDP has reignited this much-needed discussion with its platform commitment in the current election to “phase out coal-fired electricity generation to reduce smog and greenhouse gas emissions and expand cleaner, greener sources, including wind and solar”.

This promise is nothing to sneeze at. According to the Pembina Institute 63.7% of Alberta’s electricity generation now comes from burning conventional coal. They report that in 2011, Alberta coal power plants produced over 40 megatonnes of CO2: “the same amount produced by roughly half of all cars on the road in Canada today.”

With coal plants having been shut down in Ontario, and on the wane in Nova Scotia, the chart below shows just how unusual – in national terms – Alberta’s continuing reliance on coal has become.


This transition away from coal is no pipe dream. Pembina argues that within 20 years, Alberta could “supply the province’s electricity mostly from clean and renewable energy.”  Alberta is blessed with abundant and reliable renewable resources including solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and hydro.

In moving away from coal, Alberta would be in the mainstream of a trend that’s now picking up speed around the world.  Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently reported that “about 17 percent of U.S. coal-fired power generation will vanish in the next few years — some 7.5 percent this year alone”. 

We hear a lot about China’s dependence on dirty coal, but major changes are underway there too.  Beijing is closing the last of its four major coal power plants next year. Nationally, China will have closed more than 2,000 small coal mines from 2013 to the end of 2015. In its current five-year industrial strategy (2011–2015), China is investing a staggering $1.5 trillion, or more than five per cent of its GDP, in a variety of green industries. 

Why is this move away from coal occurring? Yes climate is a factor, but quite simply the elimination of coal has immediate and quantifiable benefits in terms of protecting human health. Smog in China has reached staggering proportions, making the replacement of coal plants with cleaner alternatives a foregone conclusion.  The illness cost of air pollution has long been established by medical experts in Canada. The Canadian Medical Association estimated in 2008 that the economic costs of air pollution would top $8 billion and that by 2031, these costs will have accumulated to over $250 billion.

A 2013 study published by the Lung Association and Asthma Society of Canada among others found that each year pollution from Alberata's coal plants "contributes to over 4,000 asthma episodes, over 700 emergency visits for respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, and around 80 hospital admissions, with chronic exposures resulting in nearly 100 premature deaths." A more recent study from the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment found that Edmonton air quality is, incredibly, worse than it is in the more populous industrial centre of Toronto. Smog days, it turns out, have fallen dramatically in Toronto, due in part to the elimination of coal. Indeed, the drive to reduce coal in the U.S. is being driven by new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards from the US federal government. 

While there are many good reasons to shift away from burning coal, ridding the air we breathe of harmful toxins and contaminants like mercury and nitrogen and sulfur oxides is surely a powerful one.  The lungs of Albertans deserve the same cleaner air that countless millions of people around the world are increasingly enjoying.

Jonathan Sas is the Director of Research at the Broadbent Institute.

Photo: Pembina Institute. Used under a creative commons BY-NC-SA-2.0 license