A few weeks ago, a simple question was posed in this column.

What’s the most cost-effective way for Alberta to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (and other atmospheric pollutants) by 30% by 2030?

Is it by ending all coal-generated electricity (currently producing 60% of Alberta’s power) by 2030 and replacing it with renewable power (wind and solar farms) and natural gas, as is planned by the New Democratic provincial government?

Nobody is even pretending this is a least-cost model. To shut down six coal plants prematurely, the province has just  announced it will compensate three power companies to the tune of $1.36 billion ($97 million a year over 14 years). The money is to come from the impending provincial carbon tax. 

Would it be cheaper to meet environmental targets by replacing all coal plants with natural gas?

Would a “blend” of coal, natural gas and renewables make the most economic sense?

I had never seen any cost comparisons – at least not any making sense to a non-expert.

Andrew Leach, chair of the Alberta Climate Change Advisory Panel, suggested a partial answer could be found in panel submissions from Alberta’s major power companies in 2015. 

To a one, the power companies suggested a blend of power sources would reduce GHG reductions at minimal cost. 

Most intriguing was TransAlta’s “Dial Down – Dial Up” proposal.

There’s no need, TransAlta said, to shut down all coal-burning plants by 2030 as has been decided by the Alberta New Democrat government. 

Simply reduce the amount of electricity generated at coal-burning plants  from 60%  to 40%  as soon as possible, suggested TransAlta. Replace that electricity with renewables and natural gas.

This one action would reduce GHG gases from Alberta’s electricity production by 30% — well ahead of the 2030 target. It would only cost, TransAlta said, 10% more than today’s electricity.

No government subsidies would be necessary.  Our global commitment to lower GHGs emissions would be honoured. Back-up power would be available when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. And the coal industry need not die.

Twelve of Alberta’s 18 coal plants are approaching the end of their economic lives are will be shut down in any case. That power output can be replaced by renewables and natural gas. Any health hazards from coal pollution will be hugely reduced. Remember we are talking about lowering emissions, not zero emissions.

The six remaining coal plants, equipped with the latest carbon (and other pollutant) capture technologies, are built to operate well beyond 2030. They could continue to operate. A “blend” of coal, gas and renewables can reduce emissions for decades to come. 

Keeping the most modern “clean-coal” plants operational will save the coal industry, save thousands of coal-related jobs, save this $1.36 billion shut-down compensation and easily meet lower pollution/GHG emission targets. 

Capital Power suggested that every time an aging coal plant shuts down, a request-for-proposals be put out with stringent environmental requirements. Any company making electricity, be it from natural gas, wind, coal, solar, hydro, nuclear or biomass, would be welcome to apply. The cheapest, cleanest power producer at the time would win each round.

None of the industry submissions to the Alberta Climate Change Advisory Panel ventured into the scenario of using only natural gas to replace or blend with clean coal. Such an obvious  solution would fall on deaf ears. The provincial government is adamant that 45% of Alberta’s power must come from renewables by 2030.

The Alberta Climate Leadership Plan is not about reducing emissions – the solution, scientists say, to save the plant from over-heating.

The Alberta Climate Leadership Plan is about phasing out fossil fuels  – the lifeblood of our provincial economy.

What other explanation can there be,  when the most cost-effective way to lower emissions by 30% would be by partially replacing coal with clean-burning gas – of which we have an unlimited supply and an industry employing tens of thousands of Albertans?

This climate leadership plan is shaped by belief, not science or logic. There’s no environmental need to spend this $1.36 billion from the public purse to shut down six perfectly good power plants by 2030, not if the goal is to reduce emissions by one-third. There’s no need for renewables, period!

This plan is already far more expensive than the proposals put forth by the power companies.

Any claim the Alberta Climate Leadership Plan will not impact the public purse or the taxpayer’s pocket is bogus - phasing out coal and subsidizing renewable power is to be paid for out of the carbon levy. And the “carbon levy” is nothing but another tax!  Throughout the world, renewable power (other than hydro) is subsidized by governments - an acknowledgement that cost of making electricity from renewables is two to four times more than coal, gas or hydro.

Whether it be much higher monthly electricity bills, or subsidization of renewable energy from the carbon tax, we will all pay an enormous, absolutely unnecessary price for the right to call ourselves “Canada’s climate-change leader."