Home Featured Oil & Gas From Coal to Gas and Renewables: Alberta’s Oil Industry and Environmental Progress

From Coal to Gas and Renewables: Alberta’s Oil Industry and Environmental Progress

As Alberta moves away from coal and towards natural gas and renewable energy, many companies are leading the charge in environmental innovation and sustainability.

Kakwa River Project CREDIT: Seven Generations.

This May, the Federal Government announced its intent to buy the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline. The move, predictably, was praised and derided by various groups arguing between environmental preservation and economic necessity. Most, however, did not look to the industry itself. If they did, they would see the many ways in which Albertan companies are changing how we think about the past, present and future of power and oil and gas, especially when we think about these industries and the environment.

Alberta, a province that once ran almost exclusively on coal, has a number of companies looking at transitioning from coal to renewable energy by way of the much cleaner natural gas. In doing so, companies operating in the province are changing how they harvest gas, generate power, and distribute it to Alberta’s industries and residents; and, they are doing it while attempting to keep electricity prices at the levels with which Albertans have become accustomed.

One such way to switch from coal to gas while maintaining a price point is in changing infrastructure. “In Alberta, we’ve always been very fortunate to have low-cost electricity, so the challenge is to continue offering low-cost electricity for Albertans,” says Matthew Toohey, senior sustainability advisor for TransAlta. “Converting the infrastructure helps us offer those low costs while heading to renewables.”

Converting existing infrastructure starts with the company’s coal power plants. Of the five in the province, two will be converted from coal to natural gas in accordance with coal being phased out by 2025. “We will be phased out [coal plants] by 2025,” Toohey says. “That’s an immediate impact. We are reducing our emissions somewhere in the range of 55 to 60 per cent.” For perspective, TransAlta says the conversion will be the equivalent of taking nearly two million cars off the road in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

This commitment to sustainability and environmental protection is not just in converting coal to natural gas, but in how we extract natural gas from the land. Operational efficiencies and advancements in technology have allowed one company, Seven Generations Energy, to lower its impact on the environment while still extracting gas safely and at a competitive rate.

The company is named after The Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois that dates to somewhere between 1142-1500 AD. It mandates that today’s decisions should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. “We’re working to provide energy to people while recognizing that we are challenged as a planet to minimize our footprint in all the things we do,” says Alan Boras, director of communications & stakeholder relations at Seven Generations.

For Seven Generations, the operational changes start from the ground up. Or, more accurately for a drilling company, the ground down. “We have been able to innovate with advances in technology, especially around horizontal drilling. We are able to drill a pad in the centre of four square miles, drill out with 30 plus wells and harvest out from that pad, which disturbs less than 1 per cent of the total land,” says Boras. “In the past, vertical wells may have impacted 15 per cent or more of the surface.”

The company is also committed to monitoring its activity beyond government regulation and uses renewable energy for that monitoring whenever possible. As a company involved in hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “fracking,” it wants to ensure that seismic activity is not an issue. “We’ve put in monitors to see if there is any surface impact that people would sense with respect to seismic activity caused by hydraulic fracturing,” Boras explains. “To date, there is no perceptible impact when we are completing wells three kilometres deep underground.” The monitors also use solar panels for power, as does much of the operation’s instrumentation.

While Seven Generations and TransAlta are focused on how to change their operations, local power retailer Peace Power is focused on customer education and advocacy. As Alberta’s deregulated power industry is unique for much of Canada, Peace Power has noticed that many Albertans do not know that they have a choice in power suppliers. The company’s CEO and founder, Chad Mielke, this presents a unique opportunity to talk to people about the industry and their own power usage.

“One of my greatest passions with our business is in education. So many people do not understand that they have options for power and, even if they do, they don’t know how to evaluate their options,” Mielke says. “We are willing to teach everyone about that process because when you empower the customer, they really look with a discerning eye.”

Mielke says education is also a chance to talk about Peace Power as an option, but the process is important for the industry as well. “When you have an educated consumer, you as a business have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk,” he says. “We are bringing education and advocacy to an industry that hasn’t really had it.”

Looking forward, Alberta’s oil, gas, and power companies are all thinking about renewables, albeit in different ways. Peace Power encourages green energy production through green energy certificates for their own operations, and has an app currently in development that will show customers their consumption and environmental impact. “The app will let our customers know, for possibly the first time, their impact. That will likely incline them to reduce,” Mielke says. “From there, they can start making choices with that information, whether it’s installing solar or replacing insulation or other programs that are offered through their municipality.”

For TransAlta, which is committed to being Canada’s leading clean energy company by 2025, there are a number of hurdles to overcome in the transition from coal to renewables. “It’s very hard to build out a grid with renewable energy,” Toohey argues. “It’s infrastructure, permitting, planning, land use issues. Solar and wind take up large land footprints, so you are competing with agriculture.”

One of the biggest challenges is in storing energy from these intermittent renewable energy supplies. “When you are thinking about switching to renewables, it’s about providing a reliable grid that meets demand,” Toohey explains. “The holy grail is energy storage, and our proposed pumped hydro energy storage project is a big opportunity for Alberta to pair storage with intermittent sources of renewable energy.”

The pumped storage facility, located in Brazeau County southwest of Edmonton, will be able to store power generated from renewable sources and keep it for when it isn’t generating power. This will ensure a steady supply of power when more power is generated using renewable energy that is reliant on the weather.

In the meantime, companies like Seven Generations are focused on providing clean, gas-based energy for Albertans that will fill in the gaps. “We will play a complementary role to renewable companies that are the experts in that area,” Boras explains. “We have a role in the transition to renewables and are part of the reliability in the transition.”

Alberta’s reputation in environmental policy is not only inaccurate, it ignores the many programs and innovations being undertaken by companies to not only run clean operations, but to help the province switch over from coal to natural gas and renewable energy. While we are a long way from fully renewable energy sources, there are many exciting projects happening across the province and around Edmonton that speak to the province’s ingenuity and respect for its beautiful landscape.