Answering Saskatchewan government talking points #3: Renewable electricity

In response to a 2016 letter from 250 citizens and 9 groups, premier Brad Wall failed to answer any of the ten questions which we asked him.  Instead he sent a letter consisting of what amounts to a list of his standard talking points on the subject.  We still want answers to our original questions – and as a public servant Mr Wall or his successor should provide them – but as an exercise in public education we are responding to his talking points here.

In addition, SaskPower is taking an aggressive approach toward the development of renewable energy technology.  SaskPower has set a target of having 50% of the electrical production capacity come from renewable sources by 2050.

To reach this target, we will move forward with a major expansion of wind power augmented by other renewables, such as solar, geothermal and hydro.  SaskPower plans to add approximately 1600MW of new wind generation over the next 14 years.  We are also extending the Net Metering Programme for residential and commercial customers for another two years in an effort to expand the number of customers generating solar power….

– Brad Wall

That SaskPower is prepared to contemplate as much as 1600MW of new wind generation capacity is a considerable step forward compared to the stance taken by the corporation’s previous management.  However, it is still not enough.

Firstly, the SaskPower 50% capacity target for 2030 works out at about 43% of actual generation because of differences in capacity factors among different generation technologies.  We are currently at a little over 20% (it varies from year to year) – mostly hydro.  The increase being proposed is modest compared to what has already been achieved by a number of jurisdictions worldwide – for example, Scotland increased from 22% renewables generation in 2008 to 57% in 2015 (and is currently on target for 100% in the early 2020s, with enough new facilities already in the planning stage to go beyond to 160%, i.e to become a largescale exporter of clean energy).  This represents about three times the rate of increase planned by SaskPower – Scotland is consistently achieving gains of at least 5 percentage points per year, while Saskatchewan’s plans, announced in 2015, are for about 1.5 percentage points per year.  We could and should move faster.

Secondly, we have to ask: 43% of what?  SaskPower is predicting a rapid rise in total demand, with by far the fastest increase coming from new potash mines and pipelines.  This rapid increase means that, on current figures, the 57% still coming from fossil fuels in 2030 will exceed the 80% currently coming from fossil fuels today.  So they also plan to build new fossil capacity – maybe gas-fired, maybe expensive coal with carbon capture and storage.  As these replace conventional coal, the lower emissions at the power station will enable SaskPower to reduce its own carbon footprint (it is targeting a 40% reduction).  But a side-effect will be an increase in someone else’s carbon footprint, whichever option is pursued: increasing dependence on high-pressure fracking for our gas supply will mean more methane leaks at the well, and CCS for enhanced oil recovery means more emissions from the end-use of the oil.

A root problem here is the growth in power demand – something which is not happening in nearly all other wealthy industrialized jurisdictions, even as their economies grow.  It can be addressed in two ways, and both are going to be needed if Saskatchewan is to reduce its emissions at anything like the speed which the climate crisis demands.  Firstly, SaskPower and the government need to institute a robust demand-side management programme – a series of price incentives and regulations to drive rapid energy efficiency improvements both in heavy industry and in homes and offices.  (This should include tough energy and emissions standards for any new industrial project in the province, as well as both carrots and sticks to drive progressive improvements in existing facilities.)  Secondly, the government needs to implement policies to diversify the economy, so that we are no longer so dependent on high-emissions industries.  (Indeed, I would argue for a cap on the growth of all extractive industries, combined with strong economic incentives for low-emissions sectors.)  As the majority of these industries are dependent on exporting commodities to fluctuating international markets, diversification would also bring a degree of economic stability which is currently lacking in the province.

For answers to more talking points click here.