Pourbaix Jumps Into Clean Power Debate

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Alex Pourbaix.

Cenovus Energy Inc. executive chair Alex Pourbaix says he’s concerned about the reliability of an Alberta power grid that would be totally dependent on renewable energy.

 “Renewables on their own, they are unreliable,” he told a session on energy security at the World Petroleum Congress in Calgary while acknowledging that some would consider that unfair to say. “But what is more of a challenge with them is [that] they're unreliably unreliable; we don't know when they're not going to work.”

Last December in Alberta, the temperature for the entire province was -40 C for a week, said Pourbaix. “If we had transitioned to a renewable grid, even with significant battery technology or battery application, the lights would have gone out and people would have died.”

Federal Clean Electricity Regulations would require the phase-out of carbon emissions from fossil fuel generation by 2035 to help fight climate change. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has vowed to fight Ottawa over the issue.

Pourbaix said that rather than an energy “transition” he prefers to talk about energy “diversification,” including more renewables.

“I think they have a really good place. We're going to need them in specified areas [such as] battery technology,” he said. “But you will not replace what we have now with fossil fuels without significant rollout of nuclear, or decarbonized fossil fuels.”

“And I think that's what we’ve got to talk about, an ‘all of the above’ strategy where we don't put all of our eggs in one basket, and we make sure that we can't ever be in a situation where the grid goes down, or we run out of motor vehicle fuel,” said Pourbaix. “We have to do it in a balanced way.”

He said that what worries him most about the discussion of the energy transition is that “there are many jurisdictions that have embraced wholeheartedly, shutting down fossil fuel production, generation of power from fossil fuels, without really in any way, shape or form, securing that alternate supply of whatever kind of energy is required.”

From Pourbaix’s perspective, there appears to be the view that if the oil and gas industry is shut down, everything else will just show up.

“I think the real challenge that we have — and I think a misperception many people have — is that you can just take this 102 or 103 million barrels a day of oil, or oil supply, that's powering the world, and you can just snap your fingers and replace it with renewables, major renewables with battery storage,” he said. “That is absolutely not the case.”

According to the Cenovus executive, it is going to take up to 50 years to get to where society ultimately needs or wants to get to and policies that are going to be resilient and encourage the right behaviors will be needed.

“And we're not going to be able to change this over the course of … five or 10 years; we have to have regulatory certainty over a very long period of time in order for companies to make these investments.”

Pourbaix also said it’s important that energy companies be honest and transparent with voters and consumers about what they’re trying to do and what impact it is going to have on their lives in terms of cost and lifestyle and the kind of vehicles they're going to be driving.

“I think that one of the guilty things that we've done is [that] we haven't been nearly as transparent with the population as we should be about what some of these changes might mean,” he said.


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