Power switch needed now for Alberta

Alberta’s addiction to cheap coal-fired power generation is killing us.

By Cameron Kennedy

Red Deer Advocate

Alberta’s addiction to cheap coal-fired power generation is killing us.

That’s the conclusion of a recent report by an environmental think-tank, the Pembina Institute.

It teamed with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, the Alberta and N.W.T. Lung Association and the Asthma Society of Canada on the report, which is based on mathematical models.

The report estimates that between 2008 and 2031, there will be more than 3,000 premature deaths from health problems related to coal-fired electricity. It also suggests there will be more than 2,000 hospital admissions, nearly 10,000 visits to emergency wards, and more than 100,000 instances of asthma sufferers having to restrict their activities. That means lost workdays and less productivity from people with respiratory ailments.

Tim Weis, the author of the report, admits those figures account for a small fraction of overall hospital and emergency visits, but “that doesn’t diminish the fact that those are real people going to real hospitals.”

He estimates that the cost of coal-fired power generation is about $300 million annually.

In short, Albertans are subsidizing the cost of coal-fired power generation with their very lives.

The coalition wants to put a stop to that. It’s calling on the province to develop a comprehensive renewable energy policy and adopt stricter standards for greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, industry disputes Weis’s findings.

Don Wharton, vice-president of sustainability for TransAlta utilities, points to a 2006 study conducted by the University of Alberta and the provincial government that examined air quality and health status in a 100-km radius of the province’s largest coal-fired plants. That study suggested there was no indication of significant human health effects associated with the industry.

Which report are Albertans to believe?

Weis is quick to point out that his research did not conclude there is an acute emergency, only that there is a hidden, potentially deadly, long-term cost associated with coal-fired power generation.

And that cost is higher in Alberta than anywhere else in the country because this province’s six coal-fired power plants burn more coal than the rest of the country combined.

It is also difficult to believe that the emissions from those plants are having little to no impact on human health. Loaded with sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, mercury, lead, cancerous heavy metals and arsenic, the emissions cast a thick toxic cloud over the province’s environmental legacy.

If Albertans want to break their addiction to coal-fired power generation, they will need the help of provincial and federal governments.

Reducing emissions from coal-fired plants should be their first priority. Even better would be to replace Alberta’s generating capacity with natural gas-fueled generators or wind-powered facilities. Natural gas-fired plants, for example, emit no mercury, lead or heavy metals,  while wind-powered facilities produce no emission whatsoever.

Wharton questions whether the health savings are worth the cost of reducing emissions or pursuing cleaner sources of electricity. After all, going down that road is expensive and would raise the price of power 30 to 40 per cent, he warns.

That seems like a small price to pay to stop 3,000 premature deaths, reduce the province’s health-care costs and improve the quality of life for thousands of other who have asthma or other respiratory ailments.

Coal-fire power generation is among the cheapest sources of electricity. Fortunately, it is no longer the only way to generate electricity.

Phasing out coal-fire power generations as quickly as possible should be one of our top priorities to save not only the planet from toxic greenhouse gas emissions, but also ourselves.