The Whitla Wind project phase I came onto Alberta’s grid yesterday (September 1 2019) around 1:05 pm local time. Phase 1 is 202 megawatts capacity, making it the second-largest farm in the province— Blackspring Ridge, at 300 MW, is the largest. (Project info here.)
Could we say that Whitla, together with three new gas-fired steam plants that came online between late February and early July,1 represents Alberta’s first step toward phasing out coal-fired power? The three gas-fired plants are in what the Alberta system operator calls the “Cogeneration” category—that is, most of them are co-located with oilsands processing facilities, and appear to be the oil patch’s clever way of developing a lucrative new side business under the guise of politically correct concepts like… cogeneration.
From the provincial system operator’s minutely publication of data on Alberta generation and demand, the cogen plants are the biggest single category of generation, in terms of the number of facilities, collective capacity, and collective minutely output. Collectively, they supply the provincial baseload, the business that coal used to dominate.
But coal still plays a huge role. On March 27 of this year, wind output dropped nearly 500 MW between midnight and three a.m. It was coal that stepped in to keep the grid stable (coal output is shown in plot 4 in the figure below, wind in plot 7).
It appears that four coal-fired units—Battle River 4, Keephills 1 and 2, and Sheerness 2—performed most of the closely timed choreography of dealing with that relatively fast roughly 200 MW slack net of demand; none of the 34 cogen units appreciably changed output through those three hours.
And with the advent of Whitla yesterday, a bigger source of fickle power is now on the provincial grid. Coal, and when it’s gone likely cogen or combined cycle gas (of which Alberta currently has only six facilities) or some combination thereof, will continue its role as sudden stand-in for fickle wind. With the 13.8 percent increase in total provincial wind capacity that Whitla represents, the fossil backup role will increase in importance. Likely we’ll see more fossil units running continuously at or near half power, as 4 of the coal plants and 7 of the cogen plants in the plots above did on March 27—this gives the system operator more latitude in responding to sudden significant fluctuations in wind. Because CIPK increases as a fossil thermal unit backs away from full power, we have to wonder what the point of wind was in the first place. Wasn’t it to reduce emissions of CO2, not to mention oxides of sulfur and nitrogen?
What does this tell us about the “decarbonization” of Alberta’s grid between now and 2030? It won’t be decarbonized. Alberta will kick alcoholism through a partial switch from wine to beer. It will remain an incorrigible raging alcoholic, and the Canadian media will enable the behaviour by continuing to pretend at AA meetings that the drunk emperor is a teetotaller. The paltry reductions in CO2 will be celebrated, through they really only represent a slowing of the rate of increase of Alberta’s gargantuan cumulative emissions from power generation. Greta Thunberg and other young climate change activists can look forward to my generation waving this insipid record like it’s an accomplishment, and patting ourselves on the back.