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Innovative Hydro Projects to Stabilize Electricity Grid on Path to Net Zero

Transalta's Ghost Hydroelectricity Facility
Sponsored by:
Transalta's Ghost Hydroelectricity Facility
Sponsored by:
blain van melle, Executive Vice-President of Alberta Business, TransAlta

Blain van Melle

Executive Vice President of Alberta Business, TransAlta

While Canada’s electricity systems grapple with the challenge of maintaining reliability as new renewables get added, Alberta can rely on innovative new hydro projects to stabilize its power grid.

There is global consensus that responding to climate change will require massive investment in low-emission forms of energy, with many looking to electrification as the primary means of decarbonizing economies across the globe. 


“Canada is expected to need two to three times more electricity in 2050 than we generate today,” says Blain van Melle, Executive Vice President of Alberta Business at TransAlta. “And almost all of that new supply must be clean. In our company’s transition from one of the largest coal generators in Canada to being a renewables-focused power producer, we’ve gone a long way to lower Canada’s overall emissions. We have reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 68 per cent since 2015, which is huge. That represents about 10 per cent of the reductions required to meet Canada’s overall 2030 Paris Agreement targets and we’re not stopping there.”

Companies striving to reduce their emissions footprint have the opportunity to benefit from TransAlta’s decarbonization efforts. They can partner with the clean energy leader on major new renewable projects the company is adding to its clean energy portfolio.

TransAlta’s Kananaskis Hydroelectric Facility
TransAlta’s Kananaskis Hydroelectric Facility

“For organizations looking to make a positive difference and meet their ESG goals, partnering on these projects with customers like Meta and Amazon has been extremely rewarding. It’s truly been a triple win– for us, for our customers, and for the countries where we operate,” adds van Melle.

Balancing intermittent renewable generation to meet demand

Replacing the fossil fuel generation powering our grid with renewables is challenging because they only produce electricity when its windy and sunny– renewable power isn’t always there when consumers need it. This intermittency issue only gets worse when more renewables are added to the system.   

“The problem with renewables is you still need something on the grid to back them up when they’re not producing,” explains van Melle. “As we’ve added renewable sources like wind and solar over the last 20 years, we’ve been able to rely on traditional fossil fuels as the backup when renewables are not producing.”

Innovation is often the answer

Last fall, TransAlta received regulatory approval for its WaterCharger project, a 180 MW lithium-ion battery storage system proposed at the company’s Ghost hydrofacility on the Bow River west of Calgary. Should the project advance, electricity generated at the dam will charge the batteries, storing clean, hydroelectric energy for times when the grid needs a fast-acting source of reliable power.

When we approach innovation at TransAlta, we try not to say there is a single solution, a silver bullet, but rather a multitude of solutions to navigate our shift away from high-carbon intensity generation.

“When we approach innovation at TransAlta, we try not to say there is a single solution, a silver bullet, but rather a multitude of solutions to navigate our shift away from high-carbon intensity generation,” says van Melle. 

Storing electricity from sun and wind . . . at a coal mine? 

But how can we store increasing volumes of electricity generated from solar and wind? One solution TransAlta is investing in provides a tantalizing twist in TransAlta’s transition story. Once Alberta’s largest coal-fired power generator, the company is now mining Alberta’s carbon-laden past for a solution to keeping the province’s electricity supply reliable as more renewables get added. 

The Tent Mountain Renewable Energy Complex, an early-stage development project proposed atop Tent Mountain in the Crowsnest Pass region of southwest Alberta, will use renewable electricity to power a 320 MW pumped hydro energy storage project. A massive pit on the reclaimed Tent Mountain coal mine site has filled with water since the mine shut down in the early 1980s. The volume of water, the elevation of the pit and its location near the edge of the mountain’s 300m drop make the site ideal for building the pumped storage project.

TransAlta’s Belly River Hydroelectric Facility
TransAlta’s Belly River Hydroelectric Facility

When electricity demand on the grid is high, the project will flow water from the pit down the mountain into turbines to generate power. Once through the turbines, the water will be collected in a lower reservoir. When electricity demand is low, the water will be pumped back up to the upper pit using surplus renewable generation from the wind and solar facilities operating in the southwest part of the province. 

“With Tent Mountain, wind and solar generation can be stored and released when consumers need it. It can be a huge emissions reduction win for Alberta,” says van Melle. “Tent Mountain will have the capacity to shore up a big chunk of power over a 15-hour timeframe,” says van Melle, “It’s a practical, compelling solution for stabilizing intermittent renewable generation as more wind and solar energy are connected to Alberta’s grid.” 

The Tent Mountain Renewable Energy Complex also includes intellectual property associated with an offsite green hydrogen electrolyser and offsite wind development. TransAlta and Montem Resources will form a 50-50 partnership and jointly manage the project, with TransAlta acting as project developer. Construction is targeted to begin as early as 2026 upon achieving certain technical and regulatory milestones.   

Other legacy TransAlta coal mines, other ways to advance the transition to clean energy 

Tent Mountain isn’t the only former coal mine. TransAlta is leveraging to support the energy transition. The company is also developing SunHills Solar Park, a 130 MW solar facility on the slopes of its former Highvale coal mine west of Edmonton. Mining operations ended there in 2021 when the company stopped generating electricity from coal that same year, retiring some coal units and converting others to natural gas. Its legacy landfilled fly ash (a by-product of coal fired generation) is also being used to manufacture low carbon concrete. And then there is TransAlta’s Centralia Mine in Washington State, which is currently undergoing reclamation. TransAlta  is hosting a pilot for new Hydrogen-fueled heavy haul trucks at the mine that will be used in mining for the rare earth metals needed in new energy storage technologies.

Finding the right partner 

Some companies striving to meet their ESG goals are struggling to find a credible renewable developer who will partner with them for the long-term. TransAlta’s ‘build, own, and operate model’ ensures a sustainability-focused company will benefit from a high-quality renewable facility for decades, from construction through commissioning to end of asset life.

“Our customers like that TransAlta has a 111-year operating history, not just in renewables, but in various different fuel sources,” says van Melle. “If we build a wind facility, we’re also going to run it, operate it safely, and be the partner through the life of the project. TransAlta can be a trusted and safe provider to not only take our own ESG goals to task, but other companies’ goals as well.” 

Partner with us. 

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