TransAlta Corporation is an electricity power generator and utility company based in Calgary, Alberta, and the largest investor-owned energy generator in the country. It operates coal, natural gas, wind, solar and hydro power generation facilities in Canada, the United States and Australia.
Despite ardent attempts to present itself as a “clean” energy producer, TransAlta generates the vast majority of its power from fossil fuels (coal and natural gas). With stated intentions to ramp up fossil-fuelled energy generation, TransAlta makes our Top 50 list as a major emitter.
Head office: Calgary, Alberta
Countries of operation: Canada, United States, Australia
Revenue: C$2.3 billion22
Assets: C$10.3 billion23
Number of employees: 2,228 24
Memberships: Canada West Foundation, Canadian Clean Power Coalition, Public Policy Forum, Canadian Electricity Association, Canadian Wind Energy Association, Edison Electric Institute, Excel Group, Independent Power Producers Society of Alberta,25 Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business26
The company was incorporated in 1909, when what would in 1911 officially become the Calgary Power Company began planning and constructing the first large-scale hydroelectric dam in the country—the Horseshoe Falls Hydro Plant.1 Calgary Power changed its name to TransAlta Corporation in 1981.2
|Royal Bank of Canada||CA||10.18|
|Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce||CA||7.18|
|Bank of Montreal||CA||4.82|
|Brookfield Asset Management Inc.||CA||3.65|
|Credit Suisse Group AG||CH||2.22|
|Vanguard Group Inc.||US||1.74|
|Power Corporation of Canada||CA||1.46|
|Scheer, Rowlett & Associates Investment Management Ltd.||CA||1.36|
|Government of Canada||CA||1.30|
Included are all shareholdings of 1% and greater. Source: Orbis Database, October 2018.
TransAlta describes itself as a “clean energy leader” highlighting its power generated by wind, hydro and solar energy.3 While it has made sizable investments in renewable energy, these remain a relatively minor component of its overall portfolio; 58 per cent of its portfolio consists of coal, while only 16 per cent consists of gas and 26 per cent comes from renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and hydro.4 This “energy mix” has remained quite consistent over the last four years. In 2012, for example, it generated 53 per cent of its power from coal, 19 per cent from gas and 24 per cent from renewables.5 It also mines coal for a number of its coal-fired power plants. Two of its previous coal mines in the US and Canada have stopped active coal-mining activities and are either reclaimed or currently focusing on reclamation.6
While TransAlta’s power generation figures do not indicate a transition from fossil fuels to renewables, the company has recently committed to an accelerated phase-out of coal-fired power generation.7 Ambitiously, it plans to transition fully from coal to natural gas and renewable power generation by 2025.8 While framed as a corporate-driven initiative, the impetus for this transition is linked to provincial climate policy introduced by the Notley NDP government, which mandates a stepwise phase-out of coal-fired electricity in Alberta by 2030.9 The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change issues the same target.10 TransAlta has since entered into an “Off-Coal Agreement” (OCA) with the Government of Alberta for the cessation of coal-fired emissions at Alberta coal facilities. Under the terms of the OCA, TransAlta will receive transition payments for “stranded assets” of approximately $524 million from 2017 to 2030.11
In its “transition strategy,” TransAlta emphasizes both new gas and renewables initiatives. However, its investments appear to be centred almost exclusively on the former, with little projected expansion of renewable electricity development. Its major current project investments are therefore aimed at converting coal-fired generation plants to gas-fired generation and the construction of natural gas pipelines to service these facilities.12 With this strategy, gas is cited as a “transition” or “bridge” fuel to be pursued before new renewable generation is brought online.
In 2013, TransAlta founded TransAlta Renewables Inc.13 TransAlta has indicated its intent to maintain its role as a majority shareholder in the company, owning between 60 and 80 per cent of the company at any given time.14 TransAlta Renewables’ business is oriented toward achieving a lower overall carbon weight—and since its inception TransAlta Corporation has been divesting significant shares of its renewable energy assets to the company. 15 While TransAlta Renewables does invest significantly in wind and hydro energy, nearly half of its operations are gas powered,16 suggesting that the “green” image bestowed on TransAlta Corporation through its offshoot renewables company may be overstated.
Numerous studies have found the emissions benefits of gas (especially if sourced from unconventional plays) over coal to be marginal,17 and the company’s characterization of gas as a “clean fuel” is highly dubious. In short, while TransAlta’s sizable investments in renewable energy are laudable and its efforts to transition from coal to natural gas will likely lead to a modest reduction in emissions, the company remains wedded to fossil fuels and is a major emitter. As a component of its business strategy, it presents itself as green and clean, while remaining decisively brown and dirty.
TransAlta has a history of profiting through price manipulation and insider trading. The company was found to have illegally manipulated power prices when it shut down its coal-fired power plants for repairs during peak periods of demand on cold nights during the winter of 2010–11.18 Shutdowns during these periods increased electricity prices by 10 to 60 per cent and forced the companies that owned the rights to the power to purchase high-priced electricity for their customers. It was estimated that TransAlta gained an economic benefit of between C$22.5 million and $26 million through its contravention of the regulations, according to documents filed with the Alberta Utilities Commission. TransAlta has now agreed to pay a record C$56 million settlement to the province.19 Similarly, in 2014, TransAlta paid a nearly US$150 million settlement after allegations were raised that it manipulated the electricity and natural gas markets during California’s energy crisis 15 years ago.20 In 2011, the company also admitted it had manipulated electricity imports by blocking the import of cheap power from British Columbia, which caused consumers to pay an extra C$5.5 million for power.21
Learn more about TransAlta at LittleSis.org
The intent of the Corporate Mapping Project database is to engage Canadians in a conversation about the role of the fossil fuel sector in our democracy, by “mapping” how power and influence play out in the oil, gas and coal industries of BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan.