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Lots of questions remain about the future of power production in Estevan

Discussions on the future of Boundary Dam and Shand, coal mining, CCS, solar, small modular reactors and much more.
Estevan Chamber of Commerce executive director Jackie Wall, left, listens while Doug Opseth from SaskPower discusses the future of power generation in the province. 

ESTEVAN - The future of power generation in Saskatchewan remains a focal point for people in the Estevan area.

Approximately 50 people gathered at the McGillicky Oilfield Lounge in the Power Dodge Curling Centre on Friday evening for the Estevan Chamber of Commerce’s second pub panel. And while the appetizers and socializing were undoubtedly an attraction, the real focus was on how power generation in the Estevan area will look in the next couple of decades.

Doug Opseth, the Crown corporation’s director of generation asset management and planning, was there on behalf of SaskPower to answer questions. A few other SaskPower delegates were present to roam among crowd, but it was Opseth who fielded questions from chamber executive director Jackie wall and other people who were present. 

A couple other SaskPower representatives were scheduled to join Opseth in answering questions, but they were able to attend.  

Opseth told the crowd that regulations are driving the green transition that is underway at SaskPower. Coal is among the sources subject to those regulations. Without carbon capture and storage, coal-fired plants will have to be shut down at the end of 2029. 

Technology is also evolving, and customers are telling the Crown corporation that it needs to have a lower carbon footprint. 

“All we used to hear from them was reliability and cost. You’re too expensive and you’re not reliable enough. They still care about reliability and cost, but more and more they care about our emissions,” he said.  

But he doesn’t believe it’s realistic for SaskPower to meet the net-zero targets set out by the federal government for 2035. SaskPower might have been able to pull it off by 2050, which was the previous target date, but it would have been a challenge.  

“If you work at a utility, you realize how long it takes to get things done. To get a new gas plant built, it’s six or seven years … so we start talking about taking our plans and having them for 2050 and moving them back, that’s a massive change, which leaves us with 12 years to make that energy transition,” Opseth said.

The 2035 date isn’t feasible because of technology and cost. The technology isn’t there yet. On the coldest day of the year, the wind likely won’t be blowing to generate wind power, and on the hottest day of the year, there likely won’t be wind, either. Renewables like wind and solar are there a lot of the time, but not all of the time.

“We need baseload energy in Saskatchewan. Right now we get our baseload power from coal, we get it from Boundary [Dam Power Station] and Shand [Power Station] and Poplar River [Power Station]. We get lots of it from natural gas.”

There aren’t a lot of options for Saskatchewan outside of coal and natural gas, he said. Manitoba, B.C. and Quebec have used hydroelectric generation, but Saskatchewan doesn’t have a lot of hydro options.

Small modular nuclear reactors are an option that the government has explored, but even if the concept goes ahead, the first one wouldn’t be completed until 2034, which is a year before the net-zero objective takes effect.

“That’s 300 megawatts to replace 3,000-4,000 megawatts,” said Opseth. 

Applying carbon capture and storage technology to natural gas would be expensive. Opseth worried about Saskatchewan’s competitiveness if the province had to pay for all of the changes without federal assistance. 

“It’s going to be expensive to do it, and for us to make that transition, I think we need help. We need money from the federal government to pay for some of these things.” 

The provincial government announced earlier this year that the Estevan area was one of two that it was looking at for small modular reactor technology. Lake Diefenbaker is the other. A decision on location is expected at a later date, and SaskPower is expected to decide in 2029 whether to proceed. Then it would take several years before it is operational.

Mayor Roy Ludwig noted that one of the SMRs would employ close to 200 people.

SaskPower has also announced plans to build a 100-megawatt solar power facility southwest of Estevan, which would be the largest in the province, but it would not create a lot of jobs once it opens.

When asked by RM of Estevan Reeve Jason LeBlanc on whether SaskPower had shared the information about the net-zero impact on Saskatchewan, Opseth said they tried to articulate these concerns with the feds.

“I don’t think people everywhere in Canada realize the realities of living in Saskatchewan. I think Saskatchewan is somewhat unique in terms of the climate we have and the options we have here. You can’t just take one plan and apply it to everyone living in Canada.” 

“I would like to have somebody stand up and say no,” said LeBlanc. 

LeBlanc then wanted to know what SaskPower is going to do for the community should Boundary Dam and the Shand Power Stations shut down, wiping out the good-paying jobs for both SaskPower and the Westmoreland Mining LLC, as well as the spin-off jobs in everything from sub-contractors to hospitality.  

“Of the things that SaskPower thinks about, this is in pretty much every executive meeting I sit in on,” said Opseth.  

LeBlanc was also critical of SaskPower’s decision to build the solar facility on six to seven quarters of private farm land, when there is much more land that SaskPower owns.

SaskPower has said the land it has is not stable enough, but LeBlanc countered some of it has never been dug up. And a lot of that land won’t be dug up if the mines wrap up their operations locally at the end of the decade. 

Wall wanted to know about the decommissioning process for the units at Boundary Dam once they are shut down. She also asked if it would involve a skilled workforce from the mines.  

Every facility has a decommissioning plan, he said. 

“Right now, as we’re getting closer to that 2029 date, we’re doing much more detail plans for that,” he said. “That will be part of the workforce transition piece is, if we retire coal facilities, to what condition will we be decommissioning them to?”  

Right now there is not a plan to shut down Unit 3 at Boundary Dam, Opseth said, since it was retrofitting to carbon capture and storage, but the coal supply would be an issue should the mines decide to pull out of the area at the end of 2029.  

Also discussed was the lack of interconnectedness that SaskPower has with its neighbours, unlike other jurisdictions, making it difficult to import power. It allows them to import energy and would help with reliability, and they wouldn’t be looking to purchase power produced by coal. 

There are connections to Manitoba, but that province doesn’t have a lot of excess electrical supply, and Opseth said Manitoba also likes to sell its energy to the U.S. rather than elsewhere in Canada.  

It was noted late in the session that geothermal power was not discussed at the session, leading to a question about the future of the power source. Opseth noted it remains an option.