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Why coal will continue to power Nova Scotia beyond 2030

Canada and international partners agree to go coal free, but province stays put

7 min read
caption Stephen Thomas keeps a piece of coal in his office at the Ecology Action Centre.

Nova Scotia has a long association with coal — over 250 consecutive years of mining — and that’s not going to end anytime soon.

Today the province imports coal from abroad and burns it to keep the lights on. Four other provinces burn coal for electricity, but Nova Scotia is the most coal-dependent province in the country.

Stephen Thomas, energy campaign co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, said Nova Scotia needs to stop burning coal for electricity and set a precedent for others, both nationally and internationally.

“We have a big responsibility to do the work of making the justice-based transition away from fossil fuels and from coal in particular, in order to usher in that prosperous green economy and do what I think is necessary in terms of the climate crisis,” Thomas said.

Canada and the U.K. established Powering Past Coal at the United Nations climate change conference, COP23, in Bonn, Germany in November. Partners in the alliance — a combination of countries, provinces, states and municipalities — agreed to go coal free by 2030.

Nova Scotia didn’t sign on and coal will continue to power Nova Scotia beyond 2030.

Uncovering coal

Coal is a fossil fuel that can be mined in about 70 countries, according to the World Coal Association. It is used in the production of cement and steel, and it can power transportation and electricity generation.

Nine million premature deaths worldwide were caused by air pollution in 2015, according to a study from renowned medical journal The Lancet. The same study named coal the worst air polluter among fossil fuels.

Phasing out coal is necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, according to a report by Climate Analytics. The Paris Agreement, ratified in 2016 by 170 nations, is a U.N. agreement aimed at tackling climate change.

Climate Analytics, a non-profit climate science and policy organization, reported Paris Agreement signatories need to move faster in eliminating the use of coal.

Nova Scotia and coal

Last year, 56 per cent of electricity generated by Nova Scotia Power came from burning coal and petcoke (a coal derivative). No other Canadian province relies as heavily on coal for electricity, according to figures from each province.

Nova Scotia Power has four coal plants. In an email to The Signal, the company said the plants are powered mostly by coal that’s imported from the U.S. and South America. They said domestic coal is purchased when prices are competitive.

Global alliance

The federal government said they want Canada to be coal free by 2030. The target was set last year by Catherine McKenna, the federal environment and climate change minister, and doubled down in November with the declaration of a global alliance at COP23.

Nova Scotia’s environment minister, Iain Rankin, was at COP23, but didn’t join the alliance. He said in an interview he’s taking time to consult “with staff and stakeholders in the province.”

Nova Scotia gets a pass

A question has been raised that if Nova Scotia doesn’t meet the goals of the global alliance, how can Canada be considered coal free. Rankin said he can’t speak for Canada, but exceptions have been made for Nova Scotia before.

“We are a leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and we believe that that should be taken into consideration by the government, and it has in the past,” he said.

Last year, after McKenna announced the 2030 coal-free target she signed an equivalency agreement that excused Nova Scotia from having to comply. In a news release, Premier Stephen McNeil said the province was given a pass because it’s already met other greenhouse gas reduction targets.

‘We sit on our laurels’

“We’ve gone significantly away from our reliance on coal, where it used to be close to 90 per cent in the 1990s, down to about 56 per cent current day,” said Rankin.

Nova Scotia Power is also eager to point out how far the province has come. On its website it compares 2007 to 2016. A decade ago coal generated 76 per cent of the province’s electricity, and last year it was down to 56 per cent, the company said.

Stephen Thomas said the province shouldn’t congratulate itself for reductions because levels were high to begin with and there’s still a long way to go.

“We sit on our laurels and watch the rest go by, but we’ve reduced our emissions in the province by about 30 per cent (since 2005), which to me means that we still have 70 per cent of the way to go,” he said.

caption Stephen Thomas, energy campaign co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre.

Brendan Haley, a postdoctoral fellow at Dalhousie’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies, said recognizing past accomplishments probably shouldn’t be part of conversations about future targets.

“Nova Scotia is at a bit of a crossroads. It can say that we’ve already reduced emissions, we’ve done enough so we’re just going to hit the pause button for the foreseeable future, or it can try to maintain the momentum and say that there’s actually, right now, the technical capability to reduce emissions even further,” said Haley, who was the energy co-ordinator at the EAC from 2005 to 2008.

Haley said the Maritime Link Project — which could bring hydro energy from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia via a transmission line — and a burgeoning local wind energy industry could bring more renewable energy onto our grid in the near future.

Rankin said the province intends to invest in more renewable energy, but the top priority is “doing it in a transition that ratepayers can afford.”

Nova Scotia Power echoed that sentiment in an email.

“Nova Scotia Power is focused on transitioning from coal to clean energy in a way that doesn’t unduly burden customers with additional costs.”

Crunching numbers

But phasing out coal might actually be cheaper than continuing to burn it.

The province’s main coal plants are each at least 40 years old, which Haley said is about as long as plants can be expected to operate.

Last year, Nova Scotia Power submitted a report to the Utility and Review Board that contained a 10-year budget for maintaining coal and natural gas plants. Natural gas accounts for 12 per cent of the province’s electricity.

The 10-year plan is not available publicly, but Synapse Energy Economics, a firm that consults with the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, included sections of the plan in a document from April. According to Synapse’s document, Nova Scotia Power’s 10-year maintenance budget for coal and natural gas plants is $445 million over the next decade.

caption Nova Scotia Power is the sole electricity provider in the province.

The capital budget of Nova Scotia Power was $280 million last year. So, at $44.5 million per year, the power company plans to spend about 16 per cent of its annual budget on upkeep of coal and natural gas plants for at least a decade.

No one should be surprised if the plants require even more capital than the current plan suggests, said Synapse. Synapse expressed skepticism about Nova Scotia Power’s 10-year plan in the Utility and Review Board document.

“(Nova Scotia Power) has not provided any sensitivity analysis around this projection,” reads the document. “It is reasonable to surmise significant uncertainty likely exists around this projected amount, given the age of the plants.”

Also notable, said Synapse, are “larger-than-average capital injections” of $9 million to $15 million, over and above the $445-million maintenance budget. Nova Scotia Power expects some plants to need such injections between 2020 and 2025.

If Nova Scotia Power wants to provide its customers with the least costly, most reliable electricity, Synapse said non-coal options need to be considered as quickly as possible.

Nova Scotia Power was not available for an interview with The Signal.

Other options

Tim Wood, Nova Scotia Power’s director of regulatory affairs, sent a letter to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board in April. In it, he said Nova Scotia Power knew that stakeholders wanted more information about coal-plant feasibility.

Wood said stakeholders questioned whether the power company should stick to the 10-year plan for coal or consider other options, “including advanced closure of fossil fuel plants.” He proposed collaboration between Nova Scotia Power and stakeholders to address those concerns.

The Utility and Review Board has tasked Synapse with analyzing the cost-effectiveness of maintaining Nova Scotia Power’s coal and natural gas plants. The company expects to file a final report later in December.

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  1. P

    Paul Magnus

    Y doesn't NS contact energy co in the Orkneys?
  2. T

    Tamara Stevens

    I note that the article does not mention that part of the lower amount of coal being burnt is as a result of NSP burning our hardwood. That isn't an improvement.
  3. T

    Trish MacNeil

    Not once in this article do I see any talk of jobs that will be displaced when coal is phased out and about making provisions for people who will be affected by this direction. Alberta has included monies to be dedicated to helping persons affected by coal closures to be retrained and redirected to other employment. The workers affected by this direction in Nova Scotia need to be considered as well.
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