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Smith’s anti-renewable energy stance is a setback for Alberta’s future

Doug FirbyAlberta is the energy capital of Canada – old energy, that is.

New energy, like wind and solar, used to be welcomed in the province. The iconic and aging steel turbine towers standing around Pincher Creek in the southern end of the province testify to the province’s early ventures into the non-fossil fuel game.

Now, it appears those symbols are destined to be unhappy monuments to a once-forward-thinking energy strategy cut off at the knees by a government that … what? Just doesn’t like renewables? Is bending over backwards to prop up the oil and gas industry? Is trying to prop up rural support? It’s entirely unclear what this government’s problem is with renewables.

Let’s get this fact on the table right away. Renewable energy is far from perfect. It is intermittent, which means it might not produce all the power you need when you need it. Storage technology is in its infancy. Some people don’t like the appearance of massive wind turbines (although I do). Massive solar farms, without regulatory control, can consume large swaths of arable land.

Alberta Renewable energy
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But few argue that renewables are the entire answer to our energy needs. Rather, they can be part of the solution to the vexing puzzle of meeting the ever-growing demands of people and industry in a thriving province. Importantly, they can also do so cleanly, with virtually no emissions.

Although worldwide demand for fossil fuels is growing, the imperatives of fighting climate change suggest the demand curve will turn downward in the not-too-distant future. It’s smart for the Alberta industry to embrace new energy technologies (I include small nuclear reactors) as it prepares for the inevitable end of peak oil.

Smart companies like Alberta-based TransAlta know that, and that’s why it was investing in wind farms. Many, many startups are in the game as well.

But the UCP government, led by Danielle Smith, has effectively put a deep chill on the once-robust renewable energy industry through the type of actions that drive business crazy. And it has been entirely disingenuous in explaining why it did what it did.

Followers of the story will know that the Smith government blind-sided the entire renewables industry when it announced on Aug. 3, 2023, a plan to pause renewable energy projects. The government said this would provide time for the province’s Alberta Utilities Commission to hold an inquiry into regulations for building renewables projects. The announcement left unclear what projects would be affected and exactly what the inquiry would look like.

Smith, who is not always known for being straight with voters, told the media, “The Alberta Electric System Operator asked for us to … pause to make sure that we could address issues of stability of the grid.” As evidence, she cited a published letter from Mike Law, CEO of the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO), to Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf.

Smith must have been counting on people not reading that letter. You can read it here. Law clearly makes no such request in the letter.

Perhaps Smith was also hoping that budget cuts have so eviscerated the news media in recent years that no one would have the time or inclination to dig deeper. But Drew Anderson, prairies reporter for The Narwhal online publication, did find the time. Through Freedom-of-Information requests, he found written proof that the province pressured Law to toe the line and support the moratorium.

In an email to AESO board members in July 2023, board chair Karl Johannson stated it was the government that asked the AESO to write a letter in support of the policy. “As you can imagine, Mike [Law] is not comfortable with this, but he has agreed to provide the letter,” Johannson’s email states, according to the Narwhal report. “I told him to support the minister without reservation.”

Smith also falsely claimed that the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) had asked for the moratorium. And the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) denies her claim that it passed a motion requesting the pause.

Hmmm. Who to believe?

So, here’s the thing. If, as a government, you don’t like renewables for whatever reason, maybe you should just say that. Admit that you’re handcuffing renewables because you’ve picked up on some opposition to “windmills” in rural Alberta, and you can’t afford to alienate those voters. In other words, just be honest about it. Leaning on others to create a false narrative is not how any government should ever operate.

That’s the thing about mendacity. It eventually comes back to bite you in the ass.

If the province’s goal was to put a chill on Alberta’s renewable energy industry, they’ve done a great job. Investors are now questioning whether Alberta’s free-market electricity system is so free-market after all. For its part, TransAlta has announced it is cancelling one wind-energy project near Cardston, in southern Alberta, as a result of the province’s new restrictions on renewables. Three other projects have been put on hold because of uncertainty in the market.

Industry watchers believe investors who were once hot on Alberta will reconsider their interest and start looking at other jurisdictions.

It’s a shame because Alberta’s free-market approach did indeed stimulate a surge of investment in renewable energy. It pointed to a brighter energy future in the province whose very brand is energy. If the UCP government succeeds in driving investment away, the long-term economic future looks as dim as the shuttered coal mines in Crowsnest Pass and Drumheller.

But then, long-term gain is seldom what politics is really about. Too often, the strategy is to kowtow to the people who will return you to office in four years, even if the decisions made are harmful in the long run.

In the meantime, can we start with this? How about a little more candour from our elected representatives about their actions and motivations?

Doug Firby is an award-winning editorial writer with over four decades of experience working for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Ontario and western Canada. Previously, he served as Editorial Page Editor at the Calgary Herald.

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