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Ditch coal for wind, says Holden

Alberta needs to ditch coal for wind and gas to meet the challenge of climate change, says the head of one of the province's biggest power companies.

Alberta needs to ditch coal for wind and gas to meet the challenge of climate change, says the head of one of the province's biggest power companies.

Gary Holden, CEO of Calgary's Enmax Corporation and board member with Climate Change Central, spoke to about 150 people at the University of Alberta on Alberta's energy future Thursday. The university's Energy Club organized the talk.

The International Energy Agency predicts that the world will need to spend about $26 trillion on energy investment by 2030 to meet projected demand, Holden says — equivalent to half the world's current wealth. If we also want to avoid more than two degrees of warming, it will have to spend slightly more to shut down two-thirds of the world's coal plants, replacing them with wind, solar, natural gas, and other technologies. "It's about finding a massive substitution for coal."

The United States has already closed or stopped construction of 118 coal plants this decade due to environmental concerns, Holden says. "If Canada were to make this exact same decision by substituting our coal for something else, our carbon dioxide emissions for the country would go back to the same level we had in 1965. That's how dramatic this decision is."

The problem with coal

Coal is criticized by environmentalists as one of the most emission-intense sources of power known. It accounts for about 20 per cent of Alberta's greenhouse gas emissions, according to Environment Canada, or more than every vehicle in the province.

"Coal clearly is not competitive," Holden says, as it loses 77 per cent of its energy during the generation process due to heat, transportation and other losses. When you add the cost of carbon-capture to clean it up, it costs $150 a megawatt — more than twice the cost of gas.

Holden also criticized carbon-capture as inefficient. Carbon-capture takes about a third of a power-plant's output to work, he says, so you'd have to build a 1,500 megawatt power plant just to match the emission reductions you'd get by replacing Alberta's coal plants with gas ones.

The process also cuts coal's energy efficiency to about 16 per cent — about the same as a solar panel, except you don't have to pay for sun. "If you believe we should put money in carbon sequestration," he says, "you should put lots of money into solar power."

Holden's company is phasing out its coal plants in favour of wind, solar, and gas. The company is promoting solar power around Calgary, building wind farms and building four gas plants in the city that will use waste heat to heat the downtown core.

"The global solar power market it starting to explode," he says. Researchers are predicting 50 per cent growth per year in the United States, while the price of solar has fallen by half since 2007. "The people we talk to on our supply chain are saying they're going to be at 50 cents a watt by the year 2020," he says, much cheaper than nuclear.

Gas plants work well with wind and solar, Holden says, as they can be turned on and off in response to changes in sun and wind. This is not the case with nuclear power, which he argues would make Alberta's grid less flexible and less able to handle wind.

Open energy options

Utilities have to recognize these trends and give consumers more energy options, Holden argues. That means promoting smart meters (which reward power generation during peak use time), solar panels and electric cars. Provincial and city regulations also had to change to reward those who invest in solar and wind.

St. Albert environmentalist Dave Burkhart agreed with many of Holden's points and says he's encouraged to see industry promoting solar power. "One of the biggest emitting industries out there is coal-fired generation, and if we can eliminate that we can solve a large part of our climate problem."

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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