Building a Forward-Looking Electricity System

A letter from our executive director (Garnett Genuis) appears in today’s Edmonton Journal, outlining our vision for a more forward-looking electricity transmission system. The letter has been somewhat shortened from it’s original length. You can read the published version here Below is the full-length version:

“Imagine if, at the beginning of the 20th century, the British government decided that the best way to ensure the continuation of their global dominance was to build the best cavalry regiments of all time. Imagine if, instead of investing in modern battleships and in developing the technology that would lead to the tank, they spent their money accumulating the world’s fastest and toughest horses and drilling and equipping those who rode them.

The mistake of such an approach is obvious to us today. Good cavalry regiments had been critical to European warfare for thousands of years, but dramatic changes in technology were on the verge of making good cavalry irrelevant. Maintaining British dominance required investments in the technology of the future and not the technology of the past.

This lesson needs to be applied to Alberta’s electricity policy. Alberta needs to have an electricity generation and transmission system which meets our existing needs, which has the capacity to accommodate significant growth, and which keeps prices relatively competitive. That requires us to be forward thinking.

The current government’s plan for meeting future electricity needs is to build massive transmission lines bringing coal-fired electricity to areas where they hope there will be new development. These transmission lines have not gone through the normal independent needs assessment process. Every single consumer advocates organization has raised significant concerns about the need for and cost of these new transmission lines.

When I raise concerns about these issues, people often want to know what the alternative is. Even if lines like the Heartland Transmission Lines are not needed, how will Alberta meet electricity needs 20 or 30 years from now?

Simply put, our current government is doing the electricity equivalent of building a top-notch cavalry unit right at the point when it will become obsolete. Many of our coal-fired power plants will soon be decommissioned in order to comply with federal regulations. Meanwhile, there is an easy alternative to transporting coal-fired electricity – many industrial facilities built in Alberta (especially upgraders) have the capacity for co-generation. This means that they can theoretically generate enough heat in order to produce all the power they need to operate. This co-generation can be backed-up most efficiently by putting natural gas fired electricity generation facilities right in the areas where upgraders are built. That means fewer unsightly transmission lines, reliable electricity, and much lower costs.

Shifting to natural gas and encouraging more co-generation is only a first step – and it is a step which uses technology that already exists. What about technology that does not yet exist? Not knowing exactly what the future will hold, why not give individuals and businesses the tools to innovate rather than grandfathering in an old system. For example, if we made it easy for individual consumers to sell power they generate back to the grid, we could see a huge boom in wind, solar, and thermal generation technology.

Alberta needs to better use existing technology and to leave the door open for future innovation. Overbuilding our transmission grid will leave us far behind in the competitive economic world of the 21st century. Locking ourselves in the technology of the past while spending billions is just plain foolish.”

~ by RETA on March 2, 2012.

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