Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaking in a studio
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, shown here on an earlier Corus Entertainment broadcast, took to her free radio show on Saturday to defend the UCP’s seven-month ban on new renewable-energy project approvals. Credit: (Photo: Screenshot of Global News video) Credit: (Photo: Screenshot of Global News video)

The nearly universally hostile reaction to Alberta Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf’s announcement last Thursday, that the province had imposed a seven-month freeze on new renewable electricity generation projects over one megawatt, seems to have taken the United Conservative Party by surprise.

The first reaction was shock, followed immediately by grim warnings. The province’s successful renewables industry might not survive such blatant market interference. There were dark assessments of the Smith Government’s motives, and outrage that no one from the government bothered to ask the up-to-now successful renewables industry what it thought of the plan. 

Neudorf, who is also one of Smith’s two deputy premiers, claimed pathetically he’d meant to meet industry representatives. “We were trying to,” he lamely told a TV interviewer. “Unfortunately we had a bit of a scheduling glitch and we weren’t able to get there.” If anyone believes that, apparently they don’t have a social media account. A flat tire would have made a better excuse. 

On Saturday, in full gaslighting mode, Premier Danielle Smith uncancelled her cancelled radio appearance to go on her freebie Global News/Corus Entertainment Your Province, Your Premier radio show and blame Ottawa for the UCP-created mess. 

It was all Ottawa’s fault for creating uncertainty about new natural-gas fired plants to provide back-up power for new wind and solar electricity generating installations, she insisted in a windy and frequently inaccurate response to a caller’s question.

“The federal government doesn’t want us to add any new natural gas to the grid,” Ms. Smith said. “So I’ve told them, how can I bring on additional wind and solar if I’m not able to secure the reliability of my power grid by being able to bring on natural gas peaker plants?” 

My power grid? L’État … c’est moi?”

Summarized, Smith’s rambling argument was that her regulators all asked for the pause, so she had no choice; that “every time you bring wind and solar on the grid, you have to have a backup” and no one will build backup generation because the feds have created uncertainty in the market; that we don’t know what the reclamation costs for wind and solar are; plus that wind and solar are unreliable; that last winter she drove past a solar plant for seven months that “was covered with ice and snow and not producing a single iota of power;” that the NDP took reliable coal off-stream and that was bad; and that “we’re going to end up with grid instability, and we just can’t have that!

I’m no expert on electricity markets, dear readers, but this sure sounded to me like Smith was really putting the gas back into gaslighting. 

You can listen to the show or read my transcription of her answer and hear for yourself what she had to say. You may not be impressed, but you’ve kind of got to admire her use of iota! 

Regardless of the merits of Premier Smith’s stream-of-consciousness argument – and opponents, including business people, didn’t hesitate to point them out – it showed a premier on her back foot, doing damage control on the fly. 

Interestingly, there was no mention in her bloviations about protecting agricultural land, which was mentioned in Thursday’s announcement and is supposedly a prime reason for this policy. 

“When did an Alberta conservative government ever de-boom a thriving economic sector?” asked Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid the day after the announcement. “Never – until Thursday, when the UCP announced a six-month* moratorium on new green energy projects.”

Braid, often a reliable medium for UCP talking points, went on like that, sharply critical, debunking the government’s narrative, pointing out the hypocrisy of a government that never interferes with anything the fossil fuel industry proposes no matter how destructive and then drops a moratorium on the production of clean energy. 

The reason, in Braid’s view: “One reason is significant hostility to the green agenda in the UCP base. That’s reflected by some members of the UCP’s powerful rural caucus. The government owes the rural sector for its election win. Now it’s paying, dramatically.”

Any Alberta government should understand that when you’ve lost Braid, you’re in deep trouble. (It’s not as bad as losing Rick Bell, another Postmedia bloviator, though. When you’ve lost Bell, as former premier Kenney found out at the end of his tenure last year, you’re done for!)

Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail quoted wind and solar industry executives explaining the decision could cause billions of investment dollars to go to the United States and Europe instead of unreliable Alberta in what was on-track to be a record year for renewables in the province. 

Of course, the freeze helps the UCP’s claim that meeting Ottawa’s net-zero electricity target by 2035 is impossible – even if it’s the UCP’s policy that made it impossible!

Who benefits, asked energy journalist Markham Hislop. “The incumbent utilities with their gas power plants, that’s who,” he tweeted. “IMO, the moratorium has little to do with reclamation and ag land use, and everything to do with minimizing the development of wind/solar/storage to benefit Alberta utilities.”

Others have pointed to the similarity between the UCP’s talking points about renewable-energy generation and the Republican Party’s attacks on efforts to introduce competition to the monopoly held by U.S. gas and coal electricity generation corporations. 

The Alberta government has never had a problem approving oil and gas projects without a moratorium, of course. 

And, by the way, it’s not true that that solar farm Smith glimpsed from her car produced no electricity for seven months. And nor is the claim the coal-phase out has anything to do with current electricity prices, said University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach.

Then there’s the question of what’s in that “expert panel” on energy futures that the UCP commissioned – and then buried. 

What did the 150 CEOs (actually, four, plus one PR guy) that the premier listens to on the “Premier’s Advisory Council on Alberta’s Energy Future” have to say about a moratorium to throttle renewable projects? Anything? Nothing? We may never know.

There was even talk, in the wake of the decision, of using Kenney’s Citizen Initiative Act to try to recall the government over this. 

So this moratorium is going to continue to cause trouble for the UCP as long as it’s in place, and quite possibly afterward.

*I cannot explain why most media insist that a freeze that is two days short of seven months is a six-month freeze. The government’s news release said it started on August 3 and will continue until Feb. 29, 2024. DJC

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...