The president and CEO of Alberta’s independent electricity grid operator was pressured to support the provincial government’s controversial decision to suspend new renewable energy projects, despite his objections to the move, new internal documents obtained by The Narwhal reveal.

Mike Law — the top official at the Alberta Electric System Operator, the organization overseeing the province’s electricity grid — was opposed to a moratorium on new renewable energy projects and was “not comfortable” supporting the decision, according to the documents. 

Nevertheless, in July, he was told by his government-appointed board chair to “support the minister without reservation.”

The documents, released through a freedom of information request, disclose internal correspondence contradicting claims by Alberta Premier Danielle Smith that her government’s decision to pause renewable energy developments for seven months was partially in response to requests from the operator.

A head-and-shoulders shot of Danielle Smith, pictured mid-speech while gesturing with a hand.
“The Alberta Electric System Operator asked for us to do a pause, to make sure that we could address issues of stability of the grid,” Smith said in August 2023. Documents show the CEO of the Alberta Electric System Operator was against the pause. “[The CEO] is not comfortable with this but he has agreed to provide the letter,” the government-appointed board chair wrote in an email in July. Photo: Chris Schwarz / Government of Alberta / Flickr

“The Alberta Electric System Operator asked for us to do a pause, to make sure that we could address issues of stability of the grid,” Smith said in August 2023 when pressed by reporters asking why the government made the decision, adding that the grid’s regulator, the Alberta Utilities Commission, also asked for the pause. 

“The desire to halt the new project pipeline is a very troubling message for me, and is something we need to provide good messaging against [to the Government of Alberta] when we have the opportunity,” Law wrote to his colleagues in June 2023, shortly after hearing about the government’s plans. Halting the “new project pipeline” refers to the renewables pause, which appears not to have been clearly defined at that time. 

Law added that the pause, coupled with an inquiry conducted by the regulator, would send industry into a “tailspin.” It would, he said in another email to the board chair, send a “closed-for-business message,” and would be “reputationally very challenging” for the province.

“If we make ourselves unwelcoming, investment will just go elsewhere,” he wrote.

An email from AESO CEO Mike Law regarding the board chair's meeting with the minster in June 2023 about Alberta's renewables pause
Emails obtained through a freedom of information request show Mike Law, the CEO of the Alberta Electric System Operator, said a pause on new renewable energy projects would send the industry into a “tailspin.” The government announced a moratorium a little over a month later. Source: Alberta Electric System Operator

His unequivocal opposition came the day after Minister of Affordability and Utilities Nathan Neudorf used his first meeting with Karl Johannson, the chair of the Alberta Electric System Operator, to say he wanted to pursue a pause — again contradicting the government’s claims about why it made the decision to temporarily suspend project approvals. 

That meeting took place on June 28, 2023.

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In response, Johannson — appointed by the UCP government in 2020 — warned Law against being too vocal.

“I would be careful with your messaging on this,” Johannson cautioned in an email on June 29. “This may be a way for the minister to show action and if he goes this way we are better off to have a say on the process rather than let the Alberta Utility Commission have sole reign. I agree that it can be a burden but it is better than inaction.”

Less than a month later, Johannson informed his board colleagues by email that Neudorf had requested a letter of support from the system operator, something which became central to questions about the pause when the government first announced it in August 2023.

“As you can imagine, Mike [Law] is not comfortable with this but he has agreed to provide the letter,” Johannson wrote on July 19. “I told him to support the minister without reservation. Nothing good will happen if the minister feels that the [Alberta Electric System Operator] is not behind the decision.”

An email from AESO board chair Karl Johannson to his colleagues, making it clear the CEO is not comfortable writing a letter of support on the renewables pause for the government.
A July 2023 email from the government-appointed chair of the Alberta Electric System Operator to his board colleagues, saying the CEO of the organization is “not comfortable” writing a letter of support for the government’s pause on renewable energy development. Source: Alberta Electric System Operator

The Narwhal asked Lori Williams, a professor of political science at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, to review the documents. 

Williams said the documents not only directly contradict government statements about why it introduced the pause but also call into question the independence of the system operator. 

“This speaks to direct, concerted interference — basically shopping for, or putting pressure on, agencies that are supposed to be independent and insisting that they produce something completely compatible with what the government has already planned,” she said.

“In other words, making the decision first and then putting pressure on experts to support the decision that they actually disagree with.”

Alberta government said a letter from Alberta Electric System Operator was a catalyst for the renewables pause. But the top official there didn’t want to write it

Albertans, and industry, were caught off guard on Aug. 3, the day the Alberta government announced a surprise pause on all new renewable energy projects for seven months, stifling development of wind and solar projects across the province that have surged in recent years.

The government cited two letters to justify the decision: one from the Alberta Utilities Commission and the other from the system operator.

a large array of solar panels surrounded by electric fences with barbed wire. The ground is covered in fresh snow and the sky is cloudy and bright.
Alberta’s pause on renewable energy projects lasted more than six months. Proponents are still grappling with delays and uncertainty around new rules. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Both letters were dated July 21 and were attached to the government news release announcing the pause. “This approach is in direct response to a letter received from the [Alberta Utilities Commission] and concerns raised from municipalities and landowners,” the news release said.

Neither letter asked for the pause, but simply acknowledged the government’s intentions. Previous documents obtained by The Narwhal show Neudorf showed up for his first meeting with the regulator ready to talk about a renewables pause the day after meeting with Johannson.

The newly released documents show how the two viewed the minister’s interest in a renewables pause. In early July, the board chair sent a text message to Law after meeting with the minister. He said they talked again about a pause, which he wrote “seems to be an attractive option for the minister.”

“My perspective is this is not the best approach — but I will be sensitive to ministerial desires,” Law wrote in reply.

The internal communication between Law and Johannson also indicate the operator was caught off-guard by the push for a pause and that its letter, signed by Law, was provided only after pressure was applied by the government-appointed board chair.

Several paragraphs of text from an email from AESO CEO Mike Law voicing his concerns in June 2023 regarding Alberta's planned renewables pause
A June 2023 email from the CEO of the Alberta Electric System Operator, Mike Law, to the board chair, Karl Johannson, outlines Law’s concerns with the government’s proposed moratorium on new renewable energy, saying it would be “reputationally very challenging” for the province and could drive investment away from Alberta. Source: Alberta Electric System Operator

The moratorium was lifted in February and new regulations were put in place limiting where and how renewable projects could be developed. 

Documents are evidence of government pressure and interference: professor

Williams said the documents are evidence of direct pressure from the government and from someone appointed by the government. Johannson was appointed board chair in 2020 by the United Conservative Party government under Jason Kenney, which moved quickly to stack boards across the province with hand-picked candidates.

Williams said it is concerning the government pursued the policy even though experts warned about investment impacts.

“The question, again, becomes ‘Why the moratorium? Why was that necessary? What is the damage that was done by this that the government was warned about in advance and chose to ignore?’ ” she asked.

Law was not available for an interview, but Janice Coffin, the director of communication and stakeholder relations for the system operator, sent an emailed statement attributed to Law. 

“After internal discussions, in keeping with our mandate, the [Alberta Electric System Operator] provided our independent advice to the Government of Alberta to help them make an informed decision, and once that decision was made, the [Alberta Electric System Operator] supported the policy direction of government,” the statement said. 

Coffin did not respond to The Narwhal’s request to speak with Johannson.

The government also did not respond to a request for an interview with Neudorf, minister of affordability and utilities, prior to publication.

Updated on May 3, 2024, at 9:05 a.m. MT: This story has been updated to include additional text message correspondence between CEO Mike Law and board chair Karl Johannson.

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
We’ve got big plans for 2024
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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