Why a Coal Phase-Out?
Alberta consumes more coal than the rest of Canada combined or in per capita terms, forty pounds per day. In 2014, coal represented 67% of Alberta’s electricity generation and 43% of its generating capacity. Generation from coal saw an absolute increase of 13% over 2013 when it represented 63% of electricity generation.
In terms of pollution and air quality, coal-fired power is responsible for 33% of Alberta’s sulfur dioxide emissions, 10% of nitrogen oxide emissions, 6% of fine particulate matter emissions (including 44% of mercury emissions) as well as lead, cadmium, hexachlorobenzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon and arsenic emissions. The sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides produced from the Wabamun area are also the most significant contributor to the secondary formation of fine particulate matter in Edmonton, which was shown to exceed the Canada Wide Standards in the 2009-2013 period.
The health effects of these emissions are pronounced. A model presented in “A Costly Diagnosis” (2013) suggests that short-term exposure to air pollution from coal plants is annually responsible for 700 hospital visits and eighty hospital admissions in Alberta. Meanwhile, long-term exposure to air pollution from coal plants in Alberta is a contributing factor in 100 premature deaths per year. These statistics do not consider the effects of mercury from coal emissions on neurological development, lung development, cardiac disease, cancer and other chronic illnesses.
Such health effects do not come without a price. The model presented in a Costly Diagnosis suggests that “the total economic damages in Alberta associated with the health impacts of air pollution from coal plants are in the range of $300 million annually, which would translate into approximately 0.7 ¢/kWh. (p. 2)” Other estimates have ranged as high as 2.1 ¢/kWh. The report also points to a low-range estimate from Environment Canada that suggests that the social costs of coal may be 2.9 ¢/kWh. Adding various estimates of the health and social impacts of coal to the AESO pool price gives a “true” cost of approximately 10.2 – 20.3 ¢/kWh.
From a climate change perspective, coal-fired power produces forty-three megatonnes of carbon dioxide annually in Alberta. This represents 18.5% of total emissions and 36% of industrial emissions, which is equivalent to all oilsands emissions combined. Indeed, five of the top seven emitters in Alberta are coal plants. Even Keephills 3, the newest plant, releases 858 tonnes of carbon dioxide per GWh (vs. 1053 tonnes per GWh for the average coal plant). This is twice the federal limit for plants built after 2015.
Alberta Green Economy Network (AGEN) therefore recommends that the Government of Alberta:
- Enable an orderly phase out of coal fired power by 2025, with the vast majority of plants closing by 2020.
- Every effort should be made to transition from coal directly to renewables, avoiding the use of natural gas.