A giant drag line works in the Highvale Coal Mine to feed the nearby Sundance Power Plant near Wabamun on March 21, 2014.
John Lucas / Postmedia, file
Breathing easier? Edmonton’s air is already cleaner thanks to less mercury, sulphur and tiny air pollutants spewing from power plant smokestacks upwind last year.Credit goes to the NDP carbon tax. Forced to pay for pollution, electricity companies started running gas plants instead of coal plants whenever possible, reducing emissions even before they invested in upgrades or phased out the worst plants.It’s simple economics, and fortunately, one part of the carbon plan that the UCP platform largely promises to keep.That wasn’t discussed much during the election campaign but here’s how it works.Enmax’s Shepard Energy Centre near Calgary is the cleanest electricity plant in the province, so that’s the baseline. It burns natural gas. Starting last year, the NDP charged power companies $30 per megatonne of carbon emissions for anything more than Shepard emits.That’s the “good-as-best-gas” standard, referenced in the UCP platform and different from the Stelmach-era rules that measured dirty plants only against themselves.It meant the oldest coal-fired units near Wabamun immediately cost more to run than new coal units, much more than gas-fired boilers. The results came out in February. Alberta saw 10 megatonnes less carbon emitted from coal plants in 2018 alone, with a corresponding three megatonnes less carbon emitted from gas plants.It’s good news for a planet struggling with greenhouse gas emissions, but even better news for Edmonton because this city is downwind from the largest of Alberta’s six coal-burning electricity-generating plants.Gas is not just more efficient — it’s cleaner than even the cleanest coal plant. It doesn’t release mercury or sulphur oxides. It’s those sulphur oxides which, along with the nitrous oxides released by both coal and gas, react with other particles in the atmosphere to form teeny, tiny air pollutants. Those get trapped in our lungs and do the most damage.That particulate matter helps create those bad air days in the winter — when wind speeds slow, pollution gets trapped and the murky brown haze appears above Edmonton.Despite what the coal lobby might say, this is not some new left-wing fear tactic.Under both the Harper Conservatives and Trudeau Liberals, the departments of health and environment quantified these heath impacts. Using those federal projections for Alberta, the Pembina Institute calculated that each year coal leads or contributes to 700 visits to Alberta emergency departments, 80 hospital admissions related to respiratory and cardiovascular problems from short-term air pollution exposure, 4,800 days of missed school or work from asthma sufferers and 100 premature deaths, just from burning coal.Based on that research, in 2012 former prime minister Stephen Harper legislated a slow end to coal, phasing out each unit after a 50-year life. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau moved that deadline to 2030 for the last six of Alberta’s 18 coal-fired units.So what’s the provincial role in all of that?Former premier Rachel Notley lobbied Trudeau to allow coal-to-gas conversions as a short-term solution, extending the life of the infrastructure with fewer emissions. She also changed the daily electricity market by the way she structured the carbon tax. And she signed deals with all three coal-burning owners to cover losses from the faster phase-out.The two largest companies reported the value of those deals to their investors. TransAlta gets 14 annual payments of $40 million, starting in July 2017. Capital Power’s payments are $52 million annually. Both are required to keep a head office presence here, a minimum number of employees and support coal communities in transition.The deals don’t commit the companies to gas conversions, but that’s what they’re planning. In a recent public newsletter, TransAlta said conversion on up to seven Wabamun-based units starts in 2019.Capital Power says converting its four units will cost $85 million. It has not committed to a timeline.Kenney says he’s dropping the price of carbon emissions for industry to $20 a megatonne. That aligns with the federal price on carbon, which increases to $30 a megatonne next year if the Liberals retain power in the fall election.I don’t know if $20 a megatonne will maintain the improvement in air quality Edmonton saw last year. I’m hopeful, but it remains to be seen. UCP spokeswoman Christine Myatt said a new energy minister will undertake a 90-day review of the entire electricity sector. That will include deals signed with coal operators.Alberta’s coal industry, with its 1,200 jobs, could possibly be saved by carbon capture and storage technology, retrofitted on existing coal plants. But that’s expensive.The International CCS Knowledge Centre in Regina, which successfully installed carbon capture and storage technology on one 150 megawatt coal plant, estimates its next 300-megawatt coal plant will cost just under $1 billion to retrofit. It cuts carbon emissions more than converting to gas, while also capturing sulphur. But it only makes financial sense if natural gas prices spike.What matters most here is the price on carbon. I see no sense in getting tied to one technology — let the companies decide whether to go with gas conversion or carbon capture.It’s the outcome that counts. Alberta knows coal has costly health impacts. It saw the industrial carbon tax make an immediate difference. Either premier-designate Jason Kenney makes companies pay for the pollution, or we all pay the hospital email@example.com/estolteRelated