Bigger vehicles, longer drives mean low transportation grade for Alberta in Green Provinces Ranking
It’s not difficult to look around Alberta and find innovative initiatives that are helping to green up the province. Calgary’s light-rail transit system, the CTrain, is the first in Canada to get all of its electricity from wind power. The Town of Okotoks became the first community in North America to heat a neighbourhood with a solar district heating system. Edmonton, meanwhile, is poised to become the first municipality in Canada to produce ethanol at a commercial scale from its municipal solid waste.
But isolated initiatives such as these are lost within Alberta’s larger environmental footprint. The oil sands are an obvious target, as well as the province’s power system, which generates 75 per cent of its electricity from coal. Less discussed is the love affair Albertans – along with their neighbours in Saskatchewan – have with their vehicles.
• The number of vehicles in Alberta grew by 36 per cent between 2000 and 2009, by far the highest growth rate of any province.
• Alberta has the highest number of light-duty vehicles per household and per capita of any province.
• Alberta and Saskatchewan are the only two provinces that have more vans, SUVs and pickup trucks on the road than cars and station wagons. Specifically, Alberta has 1.46 million vans, SUVs and pickup trucks compared to 1.12 million cars and station wagons.
• The amount of energy used for transportation in Alberta grew by 38 per cent between 2000 and 2009, the second-highest growth rate in the country after Saskatchewan.
• Heavy-duty vehicles in Alberta drive more kilometres per capita than any other province – more than double compared to Ontario and triple compared to Quebec.
Looking ahead, don’t expect electric vehicles to save the day. “In a more fossil fuel intensive grid, such as Alberta’s, the benefits of battery electric and plug-in hybrid EVs is undermined by a reliance on coal for electricity production,” according to the Pembina Institute, an energy and environmental think tank based in Calgary.
It points out that driving a plug-in electric vehicle in Alberta would reduce carbon dioxide (or equivalent) emissions by only four grams per kilometre, or 1.1 per cent, compared to a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle. This could improve if the province, with its strong wind, geothermal and country-leading solar resources, moved to make renewable energy sources and natural gas a larger part of its power mix.
Nicholas Rivers, Canada Research Chair in Climate and Energy Policy at the University of Ottawa, said cheap natural gas and renewables – particularly wind – represent a potent combination for moving away from coal. “If ‘fast’ emissions reductions were really a priority then this would be one way to achieve it,” he said. Electric vehicles would then make more sense.
Aggressively converting Alberta’s fleet of about 218,000 medium- and heavy-duty diesel trucks to run on compressed (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG) could also have a near-term impact. A study by the consultancy ICF Marbek estimates that switching to CNG or LNG from diesel would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 19 per cent and 23 per cent respectively.
Other alternatives? Use smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Carpool and car share. Invest in and encourage transit use. It’s a hard sell in wild rose country, where pickup trucks rule the roads and roughly a quarter of provincial gross domestic product comes from the oil and gas sector. But Albertans are also a tough bunch, bursting with innovation, and never ones to walk away from a challenge.