ESTEVAN — SaskPower is facing some big decisions over the next few years when it comes to power production, and those will have a direct impact on Estevan.
Rupen Pandya, the president and CEO of the Crown corporation, and other representatives of SaskPower's head office were on hand for Monday night's meeting of Estevan city council. A number of local employees from SaskPower were also on hand, and they listened on while Pandya spoke and answered questions from council.
He spent several minutes talking about small modular reactors (SMR), as the Estevan area is one of the two communities viewed as a possible location for the first reactor. The Elbow area is the other.
Once the location is chosen, then the lengthy process can begin of getting regulatory approval for the project to proceed. A final decision on whether to build an SMR won't be made until 2029.
Pandya said they would narrow the site selection by the end of 2023 and they'll select a location next year for application to the Impact Assessment Agency and Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.
A decision has not been made on how many units would be built, as their focus right now is on the first SMR.
"Clearly, going forward, if you think about electrification and its impact on Saskatchewan's grid, we're a 5,400-megawatt grid right now, more or less, and when full electrification takes place, we're looking at being a 10,000-megawatt grid by 2050," said Pandya.
Once one of the reactors is complete, it would employ 180 people province-wide, both inside and outside the company.
Each unit would require about 1,750 people to be involved in construction from 2029-2034.
Pandya also provided an update on the solar power project that is being planned for southwest of Estevan. An announcement of a successful independent power producer is expected in 2024 and the facility is to be online in 2026.
When council had the opportunity to ask questions, Coun. Lindsay Clark said if Estevan doesn't get the first SMR unit, it would be a "disaster" for the community.
"We're talking about large numbers of people not having a job. I think that people need to be the No. 1 priority on your decision, because it will absolutely destroy this community if we don't get it," he said.
Later on, Clark questioned why the consultation process for the SMRs won't be complete until 2029.
Pandya responded that they are working with the Impact Assessment Agency to see how they can streamline the process and shave time to make a more prompt decision.
Coun. Shelly Veroba noted that she and other members of council and management attended a public engagement session at the Southeast TechHub on Friday. She said it provided good information, and she encouraged SaskPower to continue with public engagement because a lot of people still view nuclear as an unsafe power source.
Coun. Tony Sernick said he wishes that carbon capture and storage was more of an option for SaskPower, but he understands the company's reasoning.
And Mayor Roy Ludwig noted that the city is in discussions with the Ocean Man, Pheasant Rump and White Bear First Nations about Indigenous support of nuclear, and the city has talked to the Southeast College about offering training sooner rather than later so that fewer people will need to be brought in.
In speaking to council and with the media before his presentation, Pandya stated conventional coal would have to come offline in 2030. The Clean Electricity Regulations, released earlier this summer and open for consultation until early November, make it more difficult for a coal-fired power facility to operate with carbon capture and storage technology.
SaskPower is doing its assessment of those regulations and will lay out its position.
"I've said publicly, right from the start of my tenure in this role, based at least on the preliminary architecture of those regulations, that it's not possible for us as a jurisdiction, technologically, logistically and financially, to … achieve net-zero 2035, and that warrants a conversation between the Government of Saskatchewan and the Government of Canada on how we manage energy transition in this province," he said.
SaskPower is also looking at carbon capture retrofits to the existing gas assets. It is also looking at a conversion to natural gas for the Shand Power Station and for Units 3 and 6 at Boundary Dam.
"As part of our power planning, we are actively looking at all of our available options," said Pandya. "We have a major piece of regulatory legislation that is in the review process and don't know how that will turn out, but certainly over the course of the last number of years, we've been actively looking at all of those options to help us manage the transition."
SaskPower can capture more carbon on a gas-fired conversion than through a coal-fired conversion.
Carbon capture is currently not happening on a natural gas power plant in Canada, but Capital Power in Alberta is going down that path and is expected to be in production in 2026-27, Pandya said. It is a coal plant being retrofitted to gas.
"We know that carbon capture works. It works on Boundary Dam," he said, noting that Boundary Dam has been operating with a 75-80 per cent capture rate.
The province will expand intermittent power options like wind and solar and bring more hydroelectricity onto the grid, although the potential for hydro in Saskatchewan is limited. Saskatchewan will also import more power from Manitoba.
Saskatchewan has about 5,400 megawatts of generating capacity, Pandya said, and about 65 per cent is through thermal, fossil-fuel emitting, such as coal and natural gas. Roughly 21 per cent is hydro and about 11 per cent is wind. Almost 80 per cent of the energy consumed is generated by thermal and fossil fuels.
Prior to the introduction of the Clean Electricity Regulations, SaskPower was aiming to have a 50 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from its generating capacity by 2030, and it wanted to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions from generating facilities by 2050.
"I think we had ambitious targets with respect to the 50 per cent reduction in GHG, emissions by 2030. And certainly net zero by 2050 or earlier," he said.
But with the Clean Electricity Regulations requiring net-zero by 2035, it advanced their plan by 15 years, and gave Saskatchewan 12 years to reach that objective.
"It took 93 years for us to build the current system that we have in operation, province-wide … and we're being asked to transition back in just 12 years."
Saskatchewan has the longest pathway to net-zero of almost any jurisdiction in Canada, he said.
Significant federal support will be needed to help SaskPower to meet the new regulations.
Pandya noted that he is familiar with the Estevan area. A relative taught in the Lampman area and encouraged Pandya's family to come to Saskatchewan. He spent numerous summers in Saskatchewan, became well-versed with the rivalry between Bienfait and Lampman, and ventured into Estevan from time to time, so he viewed Monday as a bit of a homecoming.