The Alberta government is refusing to take responsibility for imposing a moratorium on renewable energy projects, despite revelations from internal correspondence obtained by The Narwhal, showing how it pressured the independent Alberta Electric System Operator last year to go along with its plan.

The documents, first reported by The Narwhal on May 3, include emails indicating how the operator’s president and CEO, Mike Law, was “not comfortable” with the government’s plan, while his board chair, Karl Johannson, described the proposed moratorium as “unusual” in a previously undisclosed email.

The release of the internal emails focused attention on Premier Danielle Smith’s government, and contrasted with her previous statements from August 2023 when she said the operator “asked us to do a pause.” But members of the provincial government are continuing to portray Johannson as the driving force behind the plan.

“In fact, it was from the board chair of [the Alberta Electric System Operator] that suggested that a pause could be utilized,” Affordability and Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf said in the legislature on May 7 in response to questions from Opposition MLA Nagwan Al-Guneid. 

Alberta Affordability and Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf walks past Premier Danielle Smith as he's sworn into cabinet
Documents indicate Minister of Affordability and Utilities Nathan Neudorf came to the board chair of the Alberta Electric System Operator with the plan for a pause — not the other way around. Photo: Jason Franson / The Canadian Press

A previously undisclosed email obtained by The Narwhal shows it was Neudorf who raised the topic in his first meeting with Johannson on June 28, 2023, a few weeks after Neudorf was sworn-in as minister. 

“The only unusual thing is there is still a desire to halt the new project pipeline to answer some of these issues,” Johannson wrote in the email to brief Law about the meeting.

Alberta Electric System Operator board chair Karl Johannson's email from June 28, 2023. “The only unusual thing is there is still a desire to halt the new project pipeline to answer some of these issues,” Johannson
An email from the Alberta Electric System Operator board chair Karl Johannson sent after his first meeting with Minister Neudorf. Source: Alberta Electric System Operator

It’s unclear when the topic would have been raised prior to this meeting.

Johannson, who was appointed by the provincial government in 2020, said he cautioned the minister to be careful about a pause and said the government would need clear objectives and a clear timeline if it pursued the idea. 

Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said it’s confusing why the government has chosen to be “deceptive” rather than come out and say it had specific concerns about renewables and it was making a decision, as the government, that it believed would best tackle the problem. 

‘The minister has indicated a strong desire to pause all new applications’: board chair

Documents show Johannson also cautioned Law “to be careful with his messaging around this” after Law expressed his opposition to a pause and warned of impacts on building out the grid, as well as economic and reputational impacts.

On July 7, just over a week after that meeting, Johannson texted Law to provide an update on another meeting with Neudorf.

“The topic of a pause on new applications came up again. I discussed the issues with a pause but this seems to be an attractive option for the minister,” he wrote.

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On July 18, Johannson emailed his board colleagues with an update. 

“The minister has indicated a strong desire to pause all new applications pending the development of a resource plan,” he wrote. “His concern is reliability and he wants to have a process where industry can collaborate on future resource needs.”

Johannson went on to say that he didn’t have details, but that the minister asked for a letter of support for the moratorium from the system operator and Law is “not comfortable with this.”

Two days later, the system operator prepared a briefing note outlining its recommendations to “minimize unintended consequences” if the government moved ahead with its moratorium. 

Premier avoids answering questions about instigator of renewables pause

While Neudorf stood in the legislature and laid the decision at Johannson’s feet, Smith was more evasive. 

Asked about the previous story by The Narwhal, Smith avoided answering whether the system operator directly asked for the moratorium and said she visited the control room where “about five guys” have to amp up natural gas plants when renewables aren’t providing enough power. 

“I asked all of them, I said, would this be a little bit easier if we had reliable power, and every single one of them nodded their heads,” Smith said.

“Whatever they’re suggesting, I would have to beg to differ,” she added, referring to The Narwhal’s reporting.

Later in the week, she was asked directly about whether the operator asked for the pause and to provide a yes or a no answer.

“We had a conversation with the board chair, thank you,” Smith said.

The NDP’s Al-Guneid rejected the government’s explanation, noting in the legislature how the documents obtained by The Narwhal also revealed how the board chair urged the operator’s CEO to “support the minister without reservation,” and warned “nothing good would happen if the minister feels the system operator is not behind the decision” made by the government.

“The premier is now claiming the decision was made after five people nodded at her,” Al-Guneid said. “This would be laughable if it wasn’t tragic. Will the government stop making up stories?”

New briefing note shows electric system operator’s priorities

The internal communications obtained by The Narwhal show concerns about reliability were top of mind for the system operator as it prepared Johannson for his first meeting with the newly appointed minister. 

Talking points prepared in advance cover concerns over the pace of change to meet net-zero targets in 2035, the volatility of the system with the rapid development of renewables, transmission pressures, distribution pressures, cost and price concerns tied to an energy transition, the need for market reform and outdated policies that affect new technologies including battery storage. 

Nowhere do the talking points mention a need for a pause on projects. Neither does the brief agenda outline supplied by Neudorf’s office, spelling out what it would like to discuss.

An oil pumpjack stands in a flat, grassy field, with two large wind turbines on the horizon.
New rules for renewable energy projects have thrown the industry into disarray, with recent announcements of project cancellations citing the changes. Photo: Larry MacDougal / The Canadian Press

The same day The Narwhal revealed the internal documents, TransAlta, the largest electricity generator in the province, announced it was cancelling a wind project in southern Alberta, citing changes to the rules around renewable energy. It also put three other projects on hold, one wind farm, a battery storage project and a gas plant, citing uncertainty in the market and upcoming reforms. 

In March, the Pembina Institute estimated that up to 36 solar projects and six wind projects, worth an estimated $11.1 billion, could be impacted by new rules on renewable energy developments brought in following the moratorium. One of those was the wind farm recently cancelled by TransAlta.

Bratt said the government is engaging in blame shifting and says its actions are indicative of larger trends in Alberta. 

“There’s several themes that I’m seeing here,” he said. “One is the centralization of authority of the provincial government — we see that with bills 18 and 20, with its attacks on municipalities and universities — as well as arm twisting of arms-length agencies.”

A large array of solar panels on brown dirt with blue skies, photographed through a wire fence.
In March, the Pembina Institute estimated that up to 36 solar projects could be affected by the new rules on renewable energy development. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

The Narwhal sent interview requests and questions to both Neudorf and Smith. Both were specifically asked if they could clarify why government statements appear to directly contradict internal communications between Johannson, Law and others at the system operator, whether they could provide evidence that refutes what those internal communications suggest and, if not, why the government chose to pursue a pause despite the objections or concerns raised by some of its experts. 

Press secretaries for Neudorf and Smith did not respond to emailed requests for interviews or emailed questions and did not return follow-up phone calls. 

Johannson did not respond to an emailed request for an interview. 

A spokesperson for the Alberta Electric System Operator said the organization had “no further comment on this matter.”

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