The province of Nova Scotia’s renewable energy target is realistic but depends largely on the success or failure of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project to deliver on its promises.
The Labrador-based megaproject has suffered from years of controversy and budget overruns, which currently peg the overall cost at $12.7 billion plus financing.
It’s a big part of Nova Scotia’s plan to slowly wean the province off of energy generated by coal-fired power plants.
The province is expecting 20 per cent of the energy generated from Muskrat Falls, which now has a projected construction end date in mid-2020. At full capacity, Muskrat Falls is expected to produce 824 megawatts of electricity.
But how much of that power will find its way down south to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and beyond remains an open question among energy analysts.
Tom Adams is a Toronto-based independent energy and environmental adviser and researcher focused on energy consumer concerns.
He has kept a close eye on Muskrat Falls, which began construction in 2013, as part of the Lower Churchill project.
He describes Muskrat Falls as the “foundation” to Nova Scotia’s coal phase-out plan.
At this point, Adams said there are “significant uncertainties” about the ability of Muskrat Falls to deliver the amount of electricity required by Nova Scotia.
“I think this is a good time for Nova Scotia to be making sure you’ve got some good solid backup alternatives – a Plan B or even a Plan C,” said Adams, a research fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
Storage capacity an open question
A major concern he has is the ability of Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial Crown energy corporation, Nalcor Energy, to find the storage capacity for electricity produced when the power grid doesn’t require it.
Muskrat Falls will be at its most productive in the spring following the snowmelt, but it’s at a time of the year when the island of Newfoundland doesn’t require the energy, Adams said.
“Nova Scotia could use the power in the springtime. You’re still using the coal plants in the spring but … there isn’t enough transmission to carry that power south to Nova Scotia,” he said.
“Nalcor needs to have a storage agreement with Hydro-Québec. So far there seems to be no progress in resolving this deficiency that Nalcor sees.”
The lack of storage is a potential “show-stopper,” said Adams, that could become a major impediment that keeps Muskrat Falls from operating properly.
The $1.6-billion Maritime Link began commercial operation on Jan. 1 as electricity flows from Newfoundland, across the Cabot Strait to Point Aconi in Cape Breton.
The 500-megawatt high voltage direct current transmission consists of two, 170-kilometre long subsea cables. It has an additional 50 kilometres of overland transmission wires to a converter station in eastern Cape Breton where the power is switched to alternating current.
Renewable energy targets within reach
The plan by Nova Scotia Power Inc., a subsidiary of Emera, is to use the hydroelectric power carried by the Maritime Link to reduce the province’s dependency on coal-fired generation.
The utility says it’ll help meet federal regulations requiring a 50 per cent reduction in coal emissions by 2030, as well as meeting Nova Scotia’s 40 per cent renewable energy target by 2020.
Nova Scotia Power spokeswoman Tiffany Chase said the utility remains within aim of that goal two years out.
“We have tripled our renewable generation – from nine per cent to 28 per cent – in just a decade,” she said.
“And, we are on track to achieve 40 per cent of our electricity coming from renewables in 2020, with the addition of clean hydro supply from Muskrat Falls.”
And a large part of this has been cutting back on the use of coal and petcoke in electricity generation by 31 per cent over the past 10 years, while introducing renewable energy such as wind, hydro and tidal and biomass.
Currently about 55 per cent of electricity generated for use by Nova Scotians comes from three coal-fired generating stations in Cape Breton, located in Lingan, Point Aconi and Point Tupper, and a fourth plant in Trenton, Pictou County.
Coal phase-out plan
The Nova Scotia Power generating station at Lingan is one of the top polluters in the country. With a capacity of 632 megawatts, last year it released more than 2.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere — a decrease of 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 from 2010.
Once the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project is fully operational, Chase said Unit 2, one of the four units at the Nova Scotia Power station in Lingan, will be retired. It would have reached the end of its 45-year lifecycle in 2025.
There is no timeline to retire the other three units, which have an end life ranging from 2024 to 2029.
Nova Scotia Power says “prudent maintenance” can extend the lifespan of a generation unit beyond a specific date, which can “maximize their value for customers.”
The longer term future of coal-fired power beyond 2030 is unclear.
The Nova Scotia government worked out a new equivalency agreement in principle with the federal government last year that will see the province’s coal-fired plants in operation “at some capacity” beyond 2030.
Premier Stephen McNeil’s government wanted to ensure flexibility in the use of coal as an energy source to keep power bills affordable for ratepayers.
“We’ve demonstrated to (the federal government) that our regulations will give them the exact same amount or even more greenhouse gas emissions reductions over the time period of the agreement,” said Jason Hollett, executive director of climate change in the Department of Environment.
Nova Scotia currently leads all provinces in cutting greenhouse gases and has already reached the federal 2030 reduction target.
Discussions with Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna in November 2016 suggested the existing equivalency agreement could be extended or renegotiated post-2030, Hollett said.
“We’re still in discussions on that so that agreement is still in process. We don’t have any definitive timelines on what post-2030 will look like just yet.”
However, the province has previously projected that coal would continue to play some part in its energy mix until 2042.
Reliable energy source required
Tom Adams, who has spent nearly 30 years examining Canada’s energy systems as a lawyer, writer and academic, said if Muskrat Falls generates less than the expected amount of power, Nova Scotia needs a reliable alternative.
Tidal, solar, natural gas and biomass energy are not viewed as a source to replace hydroelectric power due to expense or unproven capability, he said.
Wind power produced 17 per cent of the province’s renewable energy in 2016, but Adams said it is not a consistently reliable source.
Buying electricity from Hydro-Québec is also an option but Adams said the transmission capacity would not be large enough to serve Nova Scotia when it needs it the most — during the winter.
“Each direction has its challenges … I’m just thinking about the single mom in rental housing. She’s got baseboard heaters and she needs a reliable supply at some kind of a reasonable price,” said Adams.
Again, the discussion moves back to coal.
“One of my recommendations in all of this is that Nova Scotia should keep its coal plants in good working order, just to have insurance.
“We really don’t have a good alternative to fossil fuels. People talk about, ‘Oh, go 100 per cent renewables,’ but as soon as you scratch the surface you find that can be really tough.”
However, he has a counter-message in the case Muskrat Falls does deliver what it promises: “You get a decent deal with some clean power free of greenhouse gases. And your off-coal plans are off to the races, I’d say.”