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Nova Scotia Power plans to produce electricity with fuel oil until 2050 instead of with coal

The Nova Scotia Power headquarters is seen in Halifax on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan) The Nova Scotia Power headquarters is seen in Halifax on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan)

Nova Scotia's power utility plans to convert a coal-burning electricity station in Cape Breton to burn heavy fuel oil once federal regulations phase out coal entirely in 2030.

The proposal has raised the eyebrows of one utility review board member and was characterized as "disturbing" by a climate policy expert.

Documents filed by Nova Scotia Power show that three of four coal-fired units at the Lingan Generating Station will be converted to heavy fuel oil in 2030 and are scheduled to operate until 2050.

"I have to say, I was a bit surprised," Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board member Jennifer Nicholson said at a recent hearing. "It doesn't really seem a lot cleaner."

David Pickles, chief operating officer of the privately owned utility, responded to Nicholson by explaining that the company is required by federal regulation to stop burning coal by 2030.

In 2016, the federal government announced coal would be entirely phased out by 2030, a move estimated to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by nearly 100 million tonnes over the following two decades.

Pickles told the hearing that it would be less expensive to produce electricity with oil than to replace its coal-burning generating station, as the Cape Breton station already has the capacity to run on oil. The emissions from coal and heavy fuel oil were comparable, he added, but the facility has "a really low utilization rate" and is usually only used to generate reserve electricity during the coldest days of winter.

Thomas Arnason McNeil, a climate policy co-ordinator with Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre, says the privately owned energy utility is "getting around" coal restrictions by using a fossil fuel with comparable emission levels.

"It's absolutely outrageous," he said in an interview. "It would be laughable if it wasn't so dire, I think, and disturbing, quite frankly."

Nova Scotia plans to generate 80 per cent of its energy from renewable resources by 2030.

Preparing for "peak" energy usage during cold winter months requires "dispatchable power," Arnason McNeil said, which can be achieved by storing energy generated from renewable resources on large-scale batteries.

"Why instead, are they choosing to take the money of ratepayers and spend it on expensive, polluting technologies?" he said. "It just represents a total lack of imagination, a total lack of ambition."

Jacqueline Foster, a spokesperson for Nova Scotia Power, said in an email Tuesday that the electric utility is committed to helping the government reach the goal of having 80 per cent of the province's energy by 2030 come from renewables. Emissions from heavy fuel oil would be low and not impact the province's targets -- which have been enshrined into law -- because the Lingan coal-fired units would only be used in "limited situations."

"We know it will take a mix of energy solutions, including wind and solar, battery storage, and other generation sources to get there," she said about the province's energy goals. "The potential fuel conversion of three units at Lingan is just one small piece of the puzzle."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 4, 2023.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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