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Alberta NDP’s rise to power raises hopes for renewable energy

The NDP election platform included several environmental planks, calling for phasing out coal-powered electricity generation while expanding wind and solar, ending carbon capture and storage experiments, strengthening environmental standards and helping families and small businesses cut energy use.

AurAlien Pottier/Getty Images/iStockphoto

It is not quite euphoria, but the renewable energy industry is optimistic that Alberta will be more welcoming to alternative power projects under the New Democratic Party than it was when the Progressive Conservatives were in power.

With Rachel Notley's left-of-centre party about to take office, there is hope that a provincial renewable energy policy will be put in place for the long term.

"For six or seven years, the previous government had white papers and round tables," said Kent Brown, president of Calgary-based developer BluEarth Renewables Inc. "We were caught in the uncertainty and lack of decision making. The new government has a great opportunity to make some decisions now."

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Mr. Brown said his firm has wind and solar projects on the drawing board in Alberta, and with the "right signals" from the new government, they may go ahead.

The NDP election platform included several environmental planks, although it was short on specifics. It called for phasing out coal-powered electricity generation while expanding wind and solar, ending "costly and ineffective" carbon capture and storage experiments, strengthening environmental standards and helping families and small businesses cut energy use.

The only specific financial commitment was on the energy-efficiency front, where the party said it would spend $5-million on interest-free "green loans" for retrofits to homes and businesses.

Jared Donald, the Calgary-based president of Conergy Canada, the Canadian arm of global solar developer Conergy Inc., said that while the NDP has revealed no "materially actionable" policies yet, the party has shown "there is a definitely an interest and a will to look at things in a different way."

There is also a "public will" to shift to renewables, he said, and he hopes moves in that direction will change the global view of Alberta when it comes to environmentally responsible energy generation.

Mr. Donald said one crucial change the new government could make would be a shift away from the fully deregulated electricity market in the province. Currently, power producers receive fluctuating prices that depend on supply and demand at any particular moment. That structure means there is little incentive to build anything but new natural gas-fired power plants in the province, he said. Solar, wind and hydro plants have greater up-front costs, and are thus harder to finance under the current regime, even though they require no fuel once they are complete.

"If you are uncertain about what the energy market is going to be, you don't spend the big capital dollars up front," and that provides an "incentive to make short-sighted decisions," Mr. Donald said. It will take government intervention to change the pricing and financing of electricity generation in the province to encourage renewables, he added.

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Conergy – which has solar projects under way in Ontario and British Columbia – would like to build some in Alberta if the province becomes more welcoming, because it has lots of space and lots of sunshine.

The wind energy industry, too, is keen on expanding in Alberta, but it also has issues with the market pricing of electricity, said Tim Weis, the Edmonton-based director of policy for the Canadian Wind Energy Association.

One solution would be for the province to set a "clean electricity standard," which would set the maximum amount of greenhouse gas emissions allowed from the power sold by electricity retailers. That would force power retailers to sign contracts with some renewable suppliers – and likely accelerate the shift away from coal-fired electricity.

The Alberta NDP's environmental platform:

Establish a green loan program to assist Alberta families, farms and small businesses reduce energy use. The program will invest $5-million to help financial institutions make interest-free loans of up to $10,000 for efficiency retrofits.

Phase out coal-fired electricity generation to reduce smog and greenhouse gas emissions, and expand cleaner sources, including wind and solar and more industrial co-generation, in the oil sands.

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End the carbon capture and storage experiment and reinvest the 2015-16 component of the project into construction of public transit.

Strengthen environmental standards, inspection, monitoring and enforcement. Build standards based on independent science and international best practices.

Take leadership on the issue of climate change and make sure Alberta is part of crafting solutions with stakeholders, other provinces and the federal government. First steps will include an energy efficiency strategy.

Editor's Note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly said Jared Donald is the  president of solar project developer Conergy Inc.  Mr. Donald is president of the Canadian arm of the company, Conergy Canada.  

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About the Author
Reporter, Report on Business

Richard Blackwell has reported on Canadian business for more than three decades. At the Financial Post and the Globe and Mail he has covered technology, transportation, investing, banking, securities and media, among many other subjects. Currently, his focus is on green technology and the economy. More

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