For the first time in a decade, the Alberta Utilities Commission on Friday gave its final approval for building a coal-fired power plant. Maxim Power received approval to build and operate a new 500-MW coal-fired plant at the existing 150-MW H.R. Milner Generating Station in the Grande Cache area. The company had provided "credible evidence" that air emission issues have been addressed through plant design and other mitigation measures, the commission said.

"The Commission finds that the location of the proposed power plant within the boundaries of the existing H.R. Milner Generating Facility site will result in minimal negative social impact," it said in a written decision. "The Commission also finds that the power plant will create positive economic benefits arising through employment and business opportunities in the local area, tax revenue and the anticipated contribution to provincial economic output."

The new C$1.5 billion (US$1.53 billion) facility will include a pulverized coal combustion system, a high-efficiency supercritical high-pressure steam generator, a high-efficiency steam turbine generator, air emissions control equipment, a water treatment system, an electrical substation, and ancillary systems to support these major systems. Maxim had also said the plant will need more transmission facilities.

The company expects to begin construction, pending financial arrangements, in the summer of 2012. The facility could come online as early as 2015.

The company told the commission that supercritical technology proposed for the plant will provide the "best available technology" economically available. "This technology, when deployed with air emissions control equipment, is projected to ensure that the power plant meets all existing air emission standards in effect in Alberta," the commission said in its decision. "Maxim indicated that this equipment was part of the design of the power plant."

The commission said it granted approval to the plant after the province’s environmental agency conducted a detailed review of the environmental impact assessment (EIA).

Maxim said in its application to the commission that the plant was "urgently" required to ensure Alberta had sufficient generation. It also asked the commission to come to a timely decision to "meet the expectations of private investors in the predictability of the regulatory process and … address the potential impact of pending federal carbon legislation on this plant."

The commissioned had issued an interim decision approving the plant on June 30. That decision had been legally challenged by Canadian environmental groups Ecojustice and the Pembina Institute, which said the approval was “blatantly timed to attempt to beat the deadline of future federal greenhouse gas regulations on coal-fired power.”

Last year, Canada’s former environment minister, Jim Prentice, proposed new regulations that would force utilities, starting in July 2015, to shutter coal-fired facilities approaching the end of their 45-year lifespans or the end of their power-purchase agreement if that were later—unless the plants’ greenhouse gas emission levels could be reduced to those of natural gas combined-cycle plants.

But the Alberta Utility Commission’s final decision on Friday set no conditions to address the plant’s substantial greenhouse gas pollution, the Pembina Institute said in a statement. “After helping this coal plant to beat the federal deadline, the AUC has now also loosened the standard for greenhouse gas pollution in Alberta," said Chris Severson-Baker, managing director of the Pembina Institute. "Approvals issued a decade ago included a requirement that the companies offset the plant emissions down to the level of a natural gas power plant. Today’s decision is a 10-year step backward for the AUC and the province of Alberta.

“This is precisely the ‘rush-to-build’ scenario Minister Prentice anticipated, and promised to prevent," Severson-Baker said. "It’s now up to Environment Minister Peter Kent to keep the federal government’s promise and to ensure the AUC’s approval doesn’t undermine the pending federal coal regulations—benefitting one company at the expense of all Canadians."

Sources: POWERnews, AUC, Pembina Institute, POWER