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Why are we talking about coal?

“Burning thermal coal… is the single largest contributor to climate change and a major source of toxic pollution that harms human health.”

Government of Canada, June 11, 2021

Did you know that in Nova Scotia, more than half of the province’s electricity is generated by burning coal? There are currently four coal-fired generating stations—in Lingan, Point Aconi, Point Tupper, and Trenton—with a total of eight units, all owned and operated by Nova Scotia Power, a subsidiary of Emera Inc. Emissions from these coal power plants have earned Nova Scotia the unfortunate distinction of being the worst emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in Atlantic Canada.

In New Brunswick, approximately 14 percent of the province’s electricity comes from burning coal at the Belledune Generating Station. The Belledune facility is a leading emitter of greenhouse gases in the province (second only to the Irving Oil refinery).

What about Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador? PEI doesn’t have a coal-fired power plant itself, but it imports about 60 percent of its electricity from New Brunswick, which, as we know, does use coal (not to mention other fossil fuels and nuclear power). 

Newfoundland and Labrador, on the other hand, generates 95 percent of its electricity from mega hydro projects. And no, that’s not great either, but that’s a story for another day.

Coal at a Glance
  • Coal is the single largest contributor to the climate crisis. 
  • Even though coal made up less than 7 percent of total electricity generation in Canada in 2018, it was responsible for 63 percent of electricity-related greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Burning coal releases harmful by-products such as sulphur, mercury, and arsenic, which are damaging to the environment and human health.
  • There is no longer any coal mining in Atlantic Canada. The coal we burn for electricity today is all imported—and it’s expensive.
A Crisis Millions of Years in the Making

The coal we use today comes from a period when dinosaurs roamed the earth. (But no, you’re not burning a T.rex for electricity). Coal is made up of dead plant matter (i.e., lots of carbon), which was subjected to extreme pressure and heat over millions of years, eventually producing the combustible brownish-black rock we know today.

Since coal is composed predominantly of carbon, burning the stuff emits a lot of CO2. In fact, the International Energy Agency reports that coal combustion is “the single largest source of global temperature increase.”
A new study revealed that mining coal also emits 50 percent more methane into the atmosphere than previously thought. Methane is an even more potent and fast-acting (i.e., atmospheric warming) greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Mining and burning coal for electricity is truly a lose-lose proposition.

So why are we still burning coal in Atlantic Canada?

The truth is, the power corporations have a vested interest in sticking with coal, at least for a while. Nova Scotia Power (a privately owned corporation) and New Brunswick Power (a Crown corporation) want to maximize returns on their capital investments, so retiring a coal-generating station early is not an attractive option—unless they can get billions in federal funding.  

But rather than admit that it’s all about profits, company executives claim or imply that transitioning away from coal isn’t technologically feasible yet, or that it will result in increased costs to ratepayers. 

The fact is, the power companies don’t have to make customers pay more for clean energy. They could choose to step up and accelerate the transition away from coal in the interest of maintaining a liveable planet, without passing on the cost to residential consumers. Failing an act of goodwill, the power utilities could still transition to clean energy sources, such as wind and solar, which are cheaper than burning imported coal.

Time to Kick the Coal Habit

A report by Energy Futures Group confirms that transitioning to clean, renewable energy in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (and by extension, PEI) is not only doable, but also affordable. The savings from renewable energy will only grow with time, so delaying the transition to renewable energy is effectively costing ratepayers and taxpayers.

When you add up the impacts and costs associated with coal on human health, biodiversity, and global warming, even the financial case for transitioning to clean, renewable energy is undeniable. There’s no justifiable reason to continue burning coal in Atlantic Canada today. 

The Conservation Council of New Brunswick reports that 70 percent of New Brunswickers would “prefer to replace Belledune electricity with wind, solar and hydro generated from within the province.”

A poll conducted in spring 2021 revealed that 85 percent of Nova Scotians want to move away from fossil fuels in favour of renewable energy alternatives. So what are we waiting for?

Let’s Do This, Already!

Transitioning away from coal is no longer a choice, but a necessity. After all, we’re not just burning coal—we’re burning our planet.

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