By David Dodge, Duncan Kinney & Dylan Thompson
Renewable energy made up half of all the new power plants constructed in the world in 2014. That's an incredible number made all the better when you think of what these plants are replacing. Big, bad coal.
There are good reasons for this. Coal is not only the most carbon intensive form of energy available, but it has significant negative health effects. Burning coal releases a bunch of nasty stuff into the air: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and particulate matter. Those substances shorten lifespans, make you dumb and trigger asthma attacks.
And if stopping the catastrophic effects of runaway climate change is your goal, reducing or eliminating coal emissions is important since they are responsible for 44 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
There has been no more effective opponent of coal than the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign in the U.S. Bruce Nilles, the organization's senior campaign director, has been with the group since the beginning in 2002 when it started out by successfully stopping the construction of new coal power plants.
Today, they have 170 staff, including legal analysts, communications people, campaign staff and community organizers. They've also moved past stopping the construction of new plants. Now they're working to phase out existing coal power plants.
Coal phase out case study - How an Alberta company negotiated with the Sierra Club in Washington State
Alberta burns more coal than the rest of Canada combined so the newly elected Alberta government wants to accelerate the phase out of coal.
Asking companies to shut down plants isn't easy but as Alberta wades into this challenge it behooves us to examine successful case studies where coal power producers, workers, governments and environmental groups worked together to shut down a coal plant in a smart, humane and economically responsible way.
Dawn Farrell and Bruce Nillies shared the stage at the Alberta Climate Summit in Edmonton, Alberta in September to tell the story of a successful accelerated coal phase out. The event was put on by the Pembina Institute (full disclosure: Green Energy Futures is presented by the Pembina Institute).
"[The governor] basically locked us in a room for two days and said, 'You guys need to work this out. You need to come up with a reasonable way to transition this coal plant in a way that's respectful to the workers and the community,'" says Nilles. "And that's what we did."
TransAlta is an Alberta-based company that operates the coal-fired Centralia Big Hanaford power plant, in Washington State. Beyond Coal lobbied to shut down this 1,340 MW coal plant for several years before former Washington Governor Christine Gregoire stepped in.
A shorter, but more certain life for coal
Together TransAlta CEO Dawn Farrell and Nilles hammered out a deal that would see one boiler shut down in 2020 and the second in 2025. In exchange, TransAlta got an expedited permit for a natural gas plant on the same site. TransAlta also kicked in $55 million for a community development fund. This satisfied TransAlta and their investors, gave union workers a timeline for transitioning to different work and gave Beyond Coal a termination date that, while not as soon as they would like, ensured the plant would cease operation sooner rather than later.
"We thought, okay, a little more time here, and we get the outcome we want, which is retirement," says Nilles. "And in a way where the unions were in support of the final outcome as was the local community. That was really a win-win for everybody."
But not every every company is like Transalta, willing to sit down and hammer out a deal that works for everyone.
"We worked on the south side of Chicago with two coal plants, ancient coal plants that were operating without modern pollution control in the middle of residential neighbourhoods," says Nilles. "The company refused, refused, refused to come to the table, and ultimately we got the mayor of the city to say, you will either agree to shut that coal plant down, or I'll make you shut that coal plant down."
Farrell believes TransAlta's history of collaboration with NGOs was key to making the Washington deal work. Transalta also opened up their books and were extremely transparent throughout the process. That's key to getting an outcome that all sides are happy with.
"The community is excited about the community investment fund. I think the environmental impacts are no longer an issue, people are no longer believing that they should try to close the plant down, because they know exactly when it's going to be closed down," says Farrell.
"We know exactly how much capital to put into the plant so that by the end of 2021, when we shut down Unit One, it's ready to be shut down, we're not over-investing in it," says Farrell.
Alberta has a huge greenhouse gas emissions problem and accelerating a phase out of coal is the easiest and simplest way it can dramatically reduce emissions.
TransAlta is at the table in Alberta, but it will scratch and claw for a longer phase-out and every concession it can muster. These negotiations are never pretty but they are happening right now, the only difference is the negotiations appear to be happening not with Beyond Coal, but in the media.
And as Centralia shows, compromise is necessary on all sides. However, it's worth pointing out that even if Alberta phases out coal by 2030, Ontario turned off its last coal fired power plant in 2014.
MORE ON HUFFPOST:...
By David Dodge & Dylan Thompson
You've seen them before, though they don't tend to stand out. Hutterites -- women in bright coloured, identical dresses and men in somber, dark jackets and hats. They're almost always at the farmer's market on a Saturday morning selling fresh eggs, carrots and potatoes.
This quaint image of a quiet people is a stereotype many of us know, so it was with curiosity and anticipation that I made my way down the highway to Southeast Alberta to visit the largest solar farm in Western Canada at the Green Acres Hutterite colony.
The Hutterites are ambitious, industrial-scale farmers. The Green Acres colony farms 20,000 acres, runs a hog and chicken operation and operates Crowfoot Plastics, a one-of-a-kind plastics recycling plant, just outside Bassano, Alberta.
The brothers Hofer
When I arrived, Dan Hofer, the "financial boss" of Green Acres, and his brother, Jake Hofer, Green Acres' electrician, greeted me. With them was David Vonesch, Chief Operating Officer at SkyFire Energy, the company that installed the colony's 2-megawatt solar system.
The Green Acres colony has a population of about 80 people. Breakfast and dinner are communal while lunch is eaten in the home, which is where I joined Dan Hofer for stew, bread, and a glass of wine.
Afterwards, they took me to see the solar farm up close. It's quite the sight. More than 7,600 solar modules, row upon row, all facing south. It's a field of blue that just sits there, quietly harvesting the sun and powering the colony's future. Thinking on this brings a smile to Jake Hofer's face.
"It still blows me away to this day," says Jake Hofer. "Yes, you look at the system, day after day, and there's nothing moving, no moving parts, and yet it creates all this energy."
Aside from thinking it's nifty, once you understand a bit more about Hutterite culture, their embrace of solar power makes perfect sense.
"Every piece of our colony's livelihood is an asset and is very important," says Dan Hofer. "...you grow and supply your own meat, you grow and supply your own garden and vegetables as much as possible, so [solar power] falls kind of in the same category, it's self-sufficient. You're relying on your own resources; you're not relying on someone else...."
Building a 2-megawatt solar system is a little more ambitious than planting potatoes. It required an investment of $4.8 million dollars. But after careful analysis the numbers seemed to add up nicely and the banks agreed.
"We did it for economic reasons," says Dan Hofer. "They didn't have an issue at all. After seeing some of the numbers, how the economics would work out, they were fully supportive."
As for the environment, Dan Hofer says the clean nature of solar energy is gravy: "We're all polluters of the land, so it's good to give something back."
For project developer SkyFire Energy, the project was a first in terms of scale.
"The solar resource here is some of the best in Canada," says Vonesch. "A system installed right here will produce about 50 or 60 per cent more than if the same system were installed in Germany, where there's more solar than anywhere in the world."
The wind resource in Southern Alberta is also among the best in Canada. So why did the colony choose solar and not wind? "Maintenance was one of the big issues," chuckles Jake Hofer. "And I'm terribly scared of heights."
Making an investment for the future
Thanks to a keen business sense and a DIY attitude, Green Acres pushed the envelope on the cost of the solar. They secured an original quote to build their 2-megawatt solar farm for $2.80 a watt, but reduced that to $2.40 a watt through their own labour.
The result is a payback of 15 years if electricity prices remain low, or as few as 10 years if they start to escalate, says Dan Hofer.
It turns out I wasn't the only solar tourist on this day. Intrigued by the economics, First Nations people from all over Alberta were also touring the solar farm and thinking about projects of their own.
"I think because of this system, because of Green Acres taking this leap, we've seen increased interest in these types of systems, and this scale of project," says Vonesch. "It's taken the 'what's possible' to a new level, and lots of people are looking at it and following suit."
"Ontario now has phased out coal, and has significant solar penetration," says Vonesch. As of late 2014 Ontario had installed 2,171 megawatts of solar and had 939 megawatts more under construction, way ahead of Alberta with a total of almost eight megawatts.
The rumor mill is alive with speculation about new supportive renewable energy policies that will be coming from the new Alberta and federal governments.
"In the first half of this year in the US, solar was the largest new source of generation coming onto the grid, out-competing wind and natural gas," says Vonesch. "It was the largest new source of energy in the US."
Many are expecting Alberta and Canada to look to renewable energy to begin nibbling away at soaring greenhouse gas...
By David Dodge & Dylan Thompson
Climate change is often portrayed as this giant, fuzzy, future threat that's hard to relate to, but the mayor of Edmonton, Don Iveson, brings the idea home: "We don't have to look much further than the disastrous Calgary floods of 2013, the increasingly intense summer storms we now face, or the growing legions of potholes caused by Edmonton's more frequent freeze and thaw cycles. Like it or not, the problem is at our doorstep."
That's why it was an important first step when in April 2015 Edmonton city council unanimously passed the Edmonton Community Energy Transition Strategy. Iveson supported the plan and he is a big believer in the capacity of local governments to get stuff done on climate change. And because of several recent progressive electoral victories, there has never been a better chance to get support from other levels of government.
"What's different is that we have provincial and federal governments who are not denying that climate change is anthropogenically connected; they're prepared to go to Paris and talk about what we're going to do. But if they want to be successful, they're going to need to plug into specific and achievable and measurable and cogent local strategies, which we've provided here," says Iveson.
Jim Andrais is the program manager for environmental policy for the City of Edmonton and he says the Community Energy Transition Strategy is a necessary step designed to protect the quality of life in Edmonton from climate change, air quality and higher energy price risks.
"What we're talking about here is an investment," says Andrais. "The actual savings to Edmontonians who make these investments will total $2.5 billion dollars between 2018 and 2035. That means $2.5 billion dollars in Edmontonians' pockets that wouldn't be there otherwise."
Between 2018 to 2021 the strategy estimates its plan will cost $25 to $30 million a year to achieve three specific targets by the year 2035:
What does energy transition look like in Edmonton?
Initiatives to achieve these goals are not finalized yet, but they will most certainly involve energy efficiency in city operations, homes and industry, mass and non-motorized transportation, and likely a significant uptick in solar energy production in the city.
The LRT is also a cornerstone of building more a sustainable city: "I have strong vision, backed by our counsel, unanimously, to pursue build out of the system. It's got to get to all corners of the city," says Iveson adding that a transit oriented lifestyle is part of helping more people walk, take transit and perhaps even avoid the need for a second car.
Iveson says urban design can help us all become more efficient and to that end Edmonton has begun one of the most ambitious projects anywhere, to build an inner city super green community on reclaimed airport lands.
"One of the things we are looking at closely for Blatchford... is 100 per cent renewable energy for 30,000 people plus business on that 600 acre green development we're planning. In addition to a geo-exchange field, one of the things we're looking at is like they did for the Vancouver Olympic village is harvesting waste heat out of the sewer trunk line which runs through."
Work is already underway on the first part of a large-scale geoexchange heating and cooling system that will heat and cool the homes in a neighborhood that seeks to be net-zero on a grand scale.
On the energy production side Iveson sees some real opportunities.
"I think solar is getting closer and closer to grid parity and I think has some real potential," says Iveson. "The Blatchford project will use "Solar ready construction subdivision patterns that orient for passive and active solar collection. I think we're trying to position future residential and industrial construction to be able to harvest those opportunities."
Edmonton is well placed to attempt to build a community of super energy efficient homes because the city has been ground zero for net-zero home innovation in North America.
"We have some amazing builders, whether it's Landmark Homes and their goal to build net-zero homes at an industrial scale through prefabrication," says Iveson. "But then we also do have some boutique builders who are building really extraordinary green homes, including a number of net-zero homes, I think the largest concentration of them in Canada."
"There are companies like PCL who are doing extraordinary and consistent work delivering LEED certified really high performing commercial and institutional buildings... And then again in the sort of boutique end of things you see the Mosaic Centre which is a truly net zero and very beautiful centre for commerce and for community in our industrial south east, which is a great example of commercial building technology that is also business feasible."
Greening the grid
Cities are already playing an important in purchasing clean electricity. The city of Calgary purchases 100 per cent renewable electricity for its own operations. Medicine Hat built Canada's first concentrated solar thermal plant as well as Canada's first wind farm on city land, Starland County has an amazing solar program for farmers and Vancouver is pledging to go 100 per cent renewable by 2050.
And while Edmonton is only taking its first steps Iveson is much more hopeful about this plan than he was six months ago
"So I'm actually as optimistic as I've been that some of the big policy changes that need to happen nationally and provincially are going to happen," says Iveson.
"We can be a leader in the Canadian context and internationally around some of the technology that's going to be required to get us to the finish line. And that is not only ethically the right thing to do for our environment, for our climate, but it's also a great business opportunity."
Are you interested in learning more about energy transition, solar energy or clean energy in general. Join us at the Edmonton Community Energy Forum on Saturday, Nov. 14. It's only $20 to register. Don Iveson will be one of the keynote speakers and both David Dodge and Duncan Kinney of Green Energy Futures will be hosting breakout sessions....
If you've hung around some of the wackier, more conspiratorial parts of the internet you may have heard of Agenda 21. According to former Fox News host Glenn Beck it is a radical plot that will "put their fangs into our community and suck all the blood out...
The story of Tillsonburg is probably pretty close to the ideal example of what the Ontario government was looking for when it enacted the Green Energy Act in 2009.
A small town of 16,000 people in southwestern Ontario, Tillsonburg's history is famously celebrated in Stomping Tom Connor's distinctive drawl
The CTrain in Calgary is one of the greatest examples of electrified transport in Canada.
It is overwhelmingly popular with residents -- it boasts an average weekday ridership of 325,000. It has kick started smarter, denser development around its stations. And best of all it and the City of Calgary's...
The race to build net-zero homes across Canada is on. Natural Resources Canada has a program that's helping five builders build five net-zero homes each to support a rapid evolution to affordable net-zero homes.
And the prize is one everyone...
There are not many entrepreneurs who can command a room like Elon Musk. When he stepped onto a stage in May to unveil the Powerwall the audience oohed and ahhed and dutifully pre-ordered more than 38,000 of Tesla's new home battery systems.
And while Tesla gets the headlines,...
Whether you call it a cottage or a cabin, Jason Rioux's summer home built partly out of shipping containers near Bobcaygeon, Ont. is pretty cool. With its rustic décor and innovative off-grid approach this solar-powered getaway is an interesting take on shipping container architecture.
It has a large octagonal central...
When you look at Ontario's greenhouse gas reductions you can pin it to one thing: Shutting down coal-fired power plants and transitioning to renewables and lower carbon electricity generation.
And while a lot of governments and politicians have talked the...
When you buy a house the first thing your eye goes to is the sticker price. But buying a home comes with a major hidden cost that doesn't show up in the MLS report: Transportation costs could more than eat up the savings of a lower-priced home in the suburbs....
What if you could take waste limestone, add in some recycled milk jugs and grocery bags and make roof shingles that last 50 years and can eventually be melted down and remade into new shingles?
That's the whole idea behind Cradle to Cradle design and manufacturing.
Governments and developers love issuing press releases announcing the opening of shiny new schools, rec centres and office buildings. Chances are good these days that building will be LEED silver, gold or even platinum.
The US Green Building Council created LEED in...
There is something calm and comforting about getting energy from the warmth of the earth. Perhaps this explains why so many people are curious about geothermal energy and why our second most popular Green Energy Futures video is called Geothermal 101.
Put your hand on the radiator in our office's parkade stairwells and you're liable to get burned whether it's January or July.
It's energy waste and it lines up with the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that an average of 30 per cent of the energy that is paid for...
Judith Sayers is a former chief, a negotiator and a pioneer in helping First Nations get involved in the renewable energy business.
Her traditional name is Kekinusuqs (pronounced ke-kay-ana-suks) and she is a member of the Hupacasath (pronounced who-pa-cha-sut) First Nation in the Greater Alberni Valley on the west coast...
Being something of a naturalist some of my most memorable trips have involved seeing birds such as the endangered resplendent quetzal in Costa Rica or the beautiful rose-coloured grosbeak in Alberta.
So we wanted to find the facts behind the claims you often hear about just how bad wind...
When we did our four-part Chasing Net-Zero series last summer we came across a story that we knew we had to cover. The Mosaic Centre for Conscious...
In the movie Interstellar Matthew McConaughey's character has a line that's stuck with me: "We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our...