CORRECTION: This story initially reported that Alberta has 736 megawatts of wind power installed. The Travers facility is listed by the Alberta Electric System Operator, but Travers in fact is not actually operational yet as it is under construction. So the total of Alberta’s installed solar capacity is 336 megawatts, meaning the total of wind and solar’s installed base is 2,605 megawatts, not 3,005 megawatts, as initially reported. Calculations in this story have been updated on Feb. 2, 2022, to reflect that.

The last week of December proved pretty damned cold in Saskatchewan and Alberta, with temperatures at -30 of below most of that week. I ended up writing a lot about it, and the realizations were startling.

A lot of this came from following the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) website, and particularly, it’s minute-by-minute coverage of the power output of every generating station tied to that province’s grid. SaskPower doesn’t provide such granular detail, which is a shame. I think it would be eye-opening. But what I saw from Alberta was alarming enough for both our provinces.

Alberta has been in a rush to get out of coal. This rush was led initially by the Rachel Notley NDP government, but was followed up by the United Conservative Party, who didn’t stop it. Much of this has been fueled by the federal Liberal government’s race to get rid of coal, and its greenhouse gas emissions.

On Dec. 31, New Year’s Eve, it was cold across Alberta and Saskatchewan. On that day, TransAlta, one of Alberta’s largest power generating companies, announced it had completed its conversion from coal to natural gas. It was also shutting down the Highvale coal mine, west of Edmonton.

Source: TransAlta

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Their release noted, “In aggregate, TransAlta has retired 3,794 megawatts of coal-fired generation capacity since 2018 while converting 1,659 megawatts to cleaner burning natural gas. This achievement, coupled with TransAlta’s growing and diversified generating portfolio, including hydro, wind, solar and battery assets, helps position TransAlta to be a highly competitive provider of reliable, low and zero-emitting electricity for customers in Canada, the United States, and Australia.”

About that wind and solar:

The AESO website revealed some literally cold, hard facts that weren’t in the TransAlta press release. As of noon, the TransAlta Keephills Unit 1, which was scheduled to retire that very day, was still putting out 302 megawatts, of its 395 megawatt rated capacity. At the same time, Alberta’s entire fleet of 13 grid-connected solar facilities, rated at 336 megawatts, was contributing 58 megawatts to the grid (Travers is under construction). The 26 wind farms, with a combined rated capacity of 2,269 megawatts, was feeding the grid 18 megawatts.

Alberta solar generation summary at noon, MST, Dec. 31, 2021. Source: Alberta Electricy Service Operator

 

Alberta wind generation summary at noon, MST, Dec. 31, 2021. Source: Alberta Electric System Operator

Did I mention it was cold across Alberta? And that wind turbines must shut down at -30 C, or they could shatter from the cold?

The red indicates extreme cold weather warnings across most of Alberta at 1 p.m. MST on Dec. 31, 2021. Source: Enviroment Canada.

 

So the total contribution of ALL solar and wind, at noon, was 76 megawatts out of a theoretical 2,605 megawatts of supposedly green, renewable energy. That meant that, at that moment, Keephills Unit 1, on its scheduled last day, was providing four times the output of all the grid-linked solar and wind generation, combined, in the entire province.

Four times. Just one coal unit. And that one coal unit was running at three-quarters capacity. If it was spun up to full capacity, it would have been more than five times.

Around the same time, Alberta’s internal power load was floating around 11,232 megawatts, just 500 megawatts or so shy of its all-time record. As I write this, I wonder if they will actually shut off Keephills Unit 1 on New Year’s Eve, or decide to let it run a few more days? What would you do?

Wind turbines on the Alberta side of the Saskatchewan/Alberta border, northwest of Macklin, Saskatchewan Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

That wind and solar power energy can’t be green, and it can’t be renewable, if it doesn’t exist. It’s not even hot air, because at least you could duct that through a generator. It’s theoretical. That giant gap of nearly 2,600 megawatts between the installed based and actual production simply is not there. It’s vapourware, masquerading as feel-good power that the earthmuffins feel is our salvation.

I might seem like I’m harping about this all week, but this is when it matters, when it’s top of mind, and we aren’t sitting in the sun at the beach. We cannot afford to have rolling blackouts in the middle of winter, when the temperatures are the coldest, because we decided for the sake of all that is holy in the Church of Climate Change that we must rely on wind and solar. The reality, proven on Dec. 31, 2021, is that we absolutely cannot, in any way, shape or form, rely on wind and solar, period, on the Canadian prairies.

While setting up for my year-end interview with Premier Scott Moe, he pointed out wind is cheaper power these days. And, as premier with a Crown corporation tasked with providing the province’s power, I’m fairly certain he has accurate information in that regard. So wind, now may very well be cheaper.

But it is not reliable. New Year’s Eve proved, at least in Alberta, that for each and every megawatt of wind and solar power installation installed, you absolutely must have reliable backup generation, principally in the form of natural gas-fired power generation.

We cannot take the risk, ever, of enduring what Texas went through this last February. If we lost power here for days and weeks on end, during the coldest part of the year, we could see thousands die. This province would, in a matter of hours, become uninhabitable. Not uncomfortable. Uninhabitable. We cannot, and must not, set up our grid such that there’s any possibility of that happening.

Sure, we can continue to build out wind generation. During the last two years, with the border closed most of that time, I’ve noticed curious lights on the horizon, just south of Estevan. At night, the blinking anti-collision lights atop the wind turbines can be seen for miles – a giant wind farm, built about a dozen miles or so south of Estevan, the Energy City. If there’s wind south of Estevan, I’m guessing someone’s going to figure out there’s wind around Estevan, too. So, I expect to see the 120 metre tall wind turbines spinning around here, in short order. I hear we’re the sunshine capital, too.

But for every megawatt of wind and solar we put up, we damned well better be building an equivalent megawatt of natural gas-fired power generation. That means we better build the gas plants necessary to capture and conserve every molecule we can from associated natural gas production – the gas that comes up with oil. We might even want to consider drilling for natural gas in this province again, if natural gas prices continue to improve. That’s something that hasn’t really happened here for over a decade.

We might want to really reconsider shutting down coal, too. We should be building carbon capture, now, and keeping coal in the mix. Indeed, we might need to build more coal, with carbon capture.

As David Yager wrote for Energy Now in January, 2020 , “Repeat After Me: Canada is Uninhabitable Without Fossil Fuels.”

New Year’s Eve, 2021, proved that.

Happy New Year. Stay warm.

 

Brian Zinchuk is editor and owner of Pipeline Online. He can be reached at brian.zinchuk@pipelineonline.ca.

 

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Brian Zinchuk: Would you buy a washer that could only do one sock at a time? That’s solar power in the winter

Alberta’s wind and solar produced 1/10 of 1% of their total rated capacity on Wednesday night

NEWS: TransAlta completes conversion from coal to natural gas power in Canada

SaskPower sets consumption record of 3,868 megawatts on Dec. 29, wind created 290 megawatts of that

It’s -32 C, and we spent 3.5 hours snowblowing today. Could an electric snowblower charged by wind power have done it?