Opinion: Alberta’s sunny little secret

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We have recently reached a remarkable inflection point in the power generation industry in Alberta. There are only three coal-fired plants still in operation – Genesee 1, 2 and 3 – all of which are currently being converted to natural gas by Edmonton-based Capital Power.

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Coal has been the backbone of Alberta’s electricity generation for most of its history, accounting for 81% of generation in 2001. That amounts to about 20% today and soon it will be reduced to zero. This transformation has occurred against the backdrop of the conversion of old coal-fired power plants to natural gas, as well as a proliferation of renewable energy generation, primarily from wind and solar power.

Wind generation in Alberta already has the capacity to produce more electricity than coal during peak performance periods and solar is catching up fast. This is great news for Alberta’s carbon footprint, but it’s also great news for the regional economy and your wallet.

According to Rystad Energy, a European analyst firm, Alberta’s renewable capacity was 0.1 gigawatt (GW) of solar power in 2020 and is expected to reach 1.8 GW by 2025. This represents more than 10% of the approximately 16 GW of total generation capacity installed today. Felix Tan, analyst at Rystad Energy, predicts that Alberta will have the largest combined total of utility-scale wind and solar capacity in the country by the middle of the decade.

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A RBC Report notes that there are 61 solar projects underway in the province, which are expected to add 1,200 megawatts (MW) of solar generation capacity by 2023. The largest of these is the Crossing project in Vulcan County, which will have approximately 1.3 million solar panels and produce enough electricity to power 150,000 homes. The solar farm is being developed by Calgary-based Greengate Power Corporation and will be the largest solar farm in the country, creating many jobs and providing tax revenue and land payments to the local economy. In June 2021, Amazon announced a power purchase agreement to buy up to 400 MW per year, as part of its commitment to be net zero by 2030.

The solar business is booming for David Kelly, founder and CEO of SkyFire Energy. Kelly says, “Solar power has been shown to create far more jobs than carbon-based electricity generation plants. There are more than 8000 solar installer jobs in Alberta today, with an average wage of up to $30 an hour, and countless side jobs employing engineers, technicians, project managers and construction managers. Jobs in the solar industry also include marketing professionals, salespeople, and other positions in downstream industries such as solar module recycling.

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The Citizens Climate Lobby, an international grassroots environmental group, points out that renewable electricity is already competitive with fossil fuels in many places, and that the renewable energy industry provides 50% more jobs, a similar salary, for same amount of energy produced.

According to solar supplier Neighbor energy, a homeowner can expect to save an average of $660 per year in electricity costs over a payback period of 12 to 20 years. A federal $5,000 to agree is available, as well as municipal loans under the Clean Energy Improvement Program (CEIP).

These savings assume that an average installation of 20 solar panels can produce 6000 kilowatt hours (kwh) of electricity per year, where the owner consumes 4500kwh and exports 1500kwh to the grid during periods of excess production.

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Kelly points out, “It’s hard to get a sense of megawatts, gigawatts, kilowatt hours, etc. . . But for the average person, they see the benefit on their utility bill and their savings.

It’s the cost savings that will drive people to adopt solar power and electric vehicles in Alberta. With all the solar projects currently underway, the potential for future investment in the industry – and the economic benefits in terms of jobs and lower costs for consumers – solar energy is just starting to explode. What better time to reinvest oil and gas revenues into what is quickly becoming Alberta’s green energy future?

Donald MacCallum is a spokesperson for Eco-Elders for Climate Action.

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