Two gas-fired power plants going offline and a winter deep freeze were enough to trigger an emergency alert on the Alberta power grid last Friday and Saturday, prompting at least two provincial premiers to blame the shortfall on the wind and solar generation that eventually helped bring some relief to the system.
On Friday, University of Alberta energy economist Andrew Leach reported a “day of chaos in energy markets in Western Canada,” after “a vicious cold snap… ravaged gas and electricity markets.” With natural gas markets facing supply issues due to plant freeze-ups combined with high heating demand, a grid alert from the Alberta Electricity System Operator (AESO) indicated “very thin margins of error,” with the provincial grid just barely able to maintain any reserve capacity through 11 PM that day.
“Let’s hope for no more plant outages,” Leach wrote in his Energy Charts newsletter. “With the H.R. Milner (300 megawatts) and Sundance 6 (401 MW) natural gas plants offline, and almost no wind and no solar generation this evening, the AESO are asking for conservation and, you’d have to think, hoping it gets a bit windier.”
But there were more tense moments ahead. On Saturday night, the AESO had to issue an emergency alert asking households to conserve power to avert a “high risk” of rotating power outages, CBC wrote. That meant turning off unnecessary lights and appliances, minimizing use of electric space heaters, avoid cooking with a stove, and delaying plugging in electric vehicles or block heaters.
Before that alert, the grid was down to its last 10 megawatts of reserve power, CBC said, citing the grid operator’s supply/demand report. Afterwards demand fell by 100 MW within seconds, an AESO spokesperson said, and by 7:45 PM local time, the province had a more comfortable reserve of 404 MW on hand.
At 6 PM, the province’s hourly demand had hit a record 12,384, before dialling back to 11,187 MW less than two hours later.
“On behalf of the AESO, I would like to extend my thanks to all Albertans who responded to the call for action,” AESO President and CEO Mike Law said in a release.
While the rest of the province breathed a sigh of relief, CBC said the Siksika Nation east of Calgary was still in a state of local emergency, after a gas line outage left more than 50 households without heat.
One Alert, Many Causes
At the height of the alerts, Alberta was importing limited supplies of electricity from Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Montana, with the two provincial governments delivering decidedly different messages at a moment of crisis.
“SaskPower is providing 153 MW of electricity to [Alberta] this evening to assist them through this shortage,” Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe posted on social media. “That power will be coming from natural gas and coal-fired plants, the ones the Trudeau government is telling us to shut down (which we won’t).”
“Extreme weather events like drought and cold snaps are putting people and communities at increased risk,” said Josie Osborne, B.C.’s minister of energy, mines and low carbon innovation, whose province sent 200 MW across the border. “Thanks to the resiliency of our energy system and exceptional planning by BC Hydro, we are able to meet the needs of British Columbians while also delivering clean, reliable hydroelectricity to our neighbours in Alberta when they needed it most.”
In the aftermath, Leach told CBC the episode had many root causes, but also showed the need for more flexibility as the federal government moves to decarbonize the country’s power grids by 2035.
“You had, for much of Alberta, the coldest night in 50 years, you had… a particularly acute low wind event, and last night a lack of import availability because of a lot of pressures on the Saskatchewan grid and on the B.C. grid at the same time as we were facing pressures,” he said. “Add to that the unexpected outage of a gas plant. That alone puts you there.”
Earlier this month, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists warned that gas plants are more prone to failure in extreme weather events, including heatwaves, cold snaps, and droughts, than utilities or the gas lobby have been inclined to admit.
Leach affirmed that the Canadian and U.S. grids can make the switch to largely renewable systems without compromising reliability, but said he understood the impulse to push back on the federal Clean Electricity Regulations.
“That presents a really big challenge and I think people have been too quick to wave that away,” he said.
Politicizing the Response
But that nuanced view of the provincial grid wasn’t very much in evidence in Alberta politicians’ immediate response to the emergency alert. “Right now, wind is generating almost no power,” Alberta Premier Danielle Smith posted. “When renewables are unreliable, as they are now, natural gas plants must increase capacity to keep Albertans safe.”
Calgary MP Michelle Rempel Garner added that “if the electric system is already buckling under pressure, it won’t likely be able to handle ‘further extreme demand created by Liberal regulations’,” The Canadian Press reported.
But by then, CP wrote, the AESO had “partially pinned the crisis on two natural gas generators that weren’t operating, as well as a lack of renewable energy being produced due to low winds and a shortage of daylight at this time of year.” Data posted by Leach showed solar and wind capacity down by 8,130 MW, gas by about 2,600, but in the same newsletter he referred to two gas plants totalling 7,000 MW that were offline.
in an emailed statement to CP, a spokesperson for Environment and Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault stated that “reliability, along with affordability, is one of the driving forces behind how the regulations will be designed.”
The Clean Electricity Regulations “would never put the province in a situation where they did not have a reliable baseload,” the statement added, “and it is why we are making provisions so that fossil fuel burning plants can run without carbon capture technologies during peak usage or in situations of emergency.”
Leach told CP the issue shouldn’t be framed as an either/or between gas and renewables, arguing that “there needs to be a mix of energy sources, including better tie-ins with other jurisdictions,” the news agency wrote. “Modellers know there will be days when demand will be high and generation from renewables is low, he said. Planning for backup needs to happen in advance, he noted, and it’s the system operator’s job to do that.”
Renewables to the Rescue
In the end, the provincial grid evened out “as increasing wind and solar generation have created some relief on the system,” the AESO posted on social media late Monday morning. “Please continue conservation efforts during peak hours of 4-7 p.m. as extreme cold continues to challenge all of us in Western Canada.”
The Canadian Renewable Energy Association said the cold snap had Alberta “leaning on electricity generation capacity that has risen sharply over the past 12 months,” adding that the supply of renewables boded well for future power exports from the province. And on iPolitics, two veteran energy analysts took issue with Smith playing on a wicked cold snap to play politics.
“To say that the renewables are unreliable, I think that’s more of a political statement,” said Sara Hastings-Simon, a professor at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. “I would say renewables weren’t generating, but whether that’s part of the problem, I guess it depends on what one says the problem is.”
The provincial grid “has to be designed and made up of a set of resources that are going to be able to meet demand at its peak and meet demand at its most stressed times,” she added. “You do that through a combination of resources, certainly looking forward with a goal of decarbonization.”
Hastings-Simon pointed to grid-connected batteries as a cleaner option to meet surging electricity demand, noting that “you can definitely see the value of energy storage” in the way the Alberta grid recovered. “It’s a great resource to be investing in because it can be built quickly, and we know it’s compatible with the direction of our future energy systems and wanting to get to a more highly decarbonized grid,” she said.
Ivey Foundation President Bruce Lourie said it was no surprise that solar wasn’t generating at night, or that wind speeds were down in very low temperatures. But “there are utilities all over the world that have lots of wind and manage for it, and there’s utilities all over the world have no gas and manage for it,” he told iPolitics.
“The Alberta electricity system is still heavily reliant on natural gas, it’s the largest component of electricity production, so really, if you’re looking at the near term, it does make sense for Alberta to have natural gas backup to renewable power,” he added. “But it’s got nothing to do with the reliability of new renewable power, and it’s got nothing to do with the ability to increase the amount of renewable power in Alberta. The idea that you need gas and you can’t have wind is not accurate.”
The real root of the problem, Lourie said, was an entirely deregulated provincial grid, the only one in Canada, with only limited interties to neighbouring jurisdictions. That analysis echoed the experience in Texas three years ago when about 700 people died, half of the state was under a boil water order, and racialized communities bore the brunt after climate change-driven severe weather imperiled the state’s islanded grid.
The entire system “was ‘seconds and minutes’ away from a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months,” the Texas Tribune reported at the time, citing officials from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). While state politicians were quick to blame the crisis on wind power, just as the Alberta and Saskatchewan premiers were over the last week, most of the power plants brought down by the extreme cold in Texas were gas-fired.
A ‘Learning Experience’
After the alerts ended, Alberta Affordability and Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf maintained the province had done all it could to prepare for the surge in demand. That was not quite six months after he and Smith slapped a seven-month moratorium on new renewable energy projects over a megawatt in size, affecting up to 118 projects worth C$33 billion and endangering investor confidence in a province that had been leading Canada in solar and wind deployment.
Instead, Alberta has more than 2,700 MW of new gas capacity coming online this year, the Globe and Mail reported last month.
On Monday, Neudorf said the series of grid alerts “was a learning experience,” adding that “hopefully, we won’t have that experience again.”
But Alberta has now had 21 grid alerts since 2017, CBC reported, four of them between Friday and Monday. Neudorf said he had ordered a review of the electricity system because Smith’s United Conservative Party (UCP) government foresaw more supply gaps in the future. But that was years after the previous NDP government adopted the AESO’s recommendation in 2016 that Alberta establish a capacity market that would pay power producers to keep more generation on standby. The UCP cancelled that plan when it took power in 2019, CBC writes.
University of Calgary associate professor of economics Blake Shaffer said he wasn’t sure a capacity market would have made much difference during extreme cold conditions, telling CBC the system might actually be the right size given that brownouts were averted. “If it had been too easy during the absolute record-breaking time period, while that might be comfortable, that’s not without its costs,” he said.
Leach compared a capacity market to “the firefighter model—I want infrastructure, I want capacity there when I need it. I’m going to pay for it to be on standby.” He said the approach “might have led to there being more resources available in total in the market before last weekend,” depending on how the market was designed.
More Vulnerability Everywhere
On Wednesday, Electricity Canada CEO Francis Bradley said there’s virtually no part of Canada where the grid isn’t vulnerable to longer periods of more severe weather conditions brought on by climate change.
“Over the last two years or so, during these extremes of weather, we’ve seen new peaks hit in terms of electricity demand,” Bradley told CP. “And it’s not just in Alberta. We saw new peak demands hit last summer in Ontario, we saw new peak demand hit last winter in Quebec, for example. In most regions of the country, the extremes are increasing.”
And in that kind of moment, former lawyer and energy executive Susan Jane Wright wrote for The Tyee, heeding the warning is a far better strategy than trying to score political points.
“Let’s not blame anyone. Let’s acknowledge that we had a close call on Saturday and spewing misinformation is not helpful; it’s downright dangerous,” Wright advised.
“Why? Because these kinds of power shortages will happen with more frequency as we move deeper into climate change. We can expect more days of extreme cold and extreme heat, which will drive up demand and put even more pressure on the power grid.”
Which means “we need to be prepared, not angry. We need answers, not ideological bozos spreading misinformation.”