Residents of many Canadian provinces enjoy reasonably reliable electricity service, finds the Globe and Mail in a new analysis—but reliability differs among provinces, with services in the country’s northern territories remaining largely unexamined.
“Customers of Newfoundland & Labrador Hydro suffer the most unreliable electricity service by a wide margin,” writes the Globe. “They can only dream of the level of service enjoyed by citizens of major cities such as Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, and Edmonton.”
Naturally occurring factors like weather, geomagnetic disturbances from the sun, and even squirrels can cause outages. In other cases, malevolent acts—like cyber- or physical attacks on grids by foreign or domestic actors—can destroy infrastructure.
Utilities can expect to bear some of the responsibility if they neglect infrastructure maintenance, like in the case of California’s Pacific Gas and Electric, whose failures to maintain and invest in its grid have been linked to high electricity bills, rolling blackouts, and catastrophic wildfires. Similarly, deregulation in Texas allowed operators to neglect weatherization requirements that could have protected against a cold snap. The resulting grid failures led to massive blackouts that cut heating when it was most needed, causing the deaths of 700 people.
It’s also up to utilities and grid operators to invest in new technologies. Advanced forecasting systems, for example, can help anticipate grid pressures from weather and energy demand fluctuations. And while geographic differences—like the overall size and distribution of a grid, or its exposure to extreme weather events—can make comparisons between grids “fraught,” reliability benchmarks are a key tool for evaluating their performance.
“We know that reliability and cost are the two main drivers for customer satisfaction,” said Harneet Panesar, chief operating officer of the Ontario Energy Board. “There’s the old saying that what gets measured gets managed. We expect utilities to manage their reliability.”
The Globe’s analysis looked into 15 utilities across Canada’s 10 provinces to conclude that, “overall, Canadians enjoy reasonably reliable electricity service—and the situation hasn’t changed much for a decade.” It ranked utilities according to five-year averages for two common benchmarks; the System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI), which measures the length of outages experienced by the average customer each year, and the System Average Interruption Frequency Index (SAIFI), which represents the annual average number of outages. Major events like hurricanes or wildfires are considered outside the utilities’ control, so they’re excluded from the figures. For either benchmark, a lower score indicates better reliability.
Newfoundland & Labrador Hydro (NLH) reported the highest value for both SAIDI and SAIFI for its 38,000 direct customers, most of whom live in remote areas. Most Newfoundlanders—274,000 of them—are served by Newfoundland Power, which purchases nearly all of its electricity from NLH. Customers experience an average of 5.46 interruptions per year, resulting in 18.24 hours of outages. Experts attribute those results to the province’s location, which exposes electricity systems to extreme weather conditions.
Hydro-Québec and SaskPower, respectively, had the second-highest SAIDI and SAIFI values, with outage rates slightly less than half of NLH’s. Ontario’s Hydro One, recorded the third-highest values for both benchmarks. Utilities from two other maritime provinces—Nova Scotia and New Brunswick—were also among the top six utilities with the highest SAIFI and SAIDI values. Many of the utilities with lower rankings also had smaller jurisdictions, such as city utilities like Toronto Hydro and Calgary’s Enmax Corporation.
The Globe’s analysis did not describe conditions in Canada’s three northern territories—Nunavut, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories. However, annual reports and other documentation indicate that three of the utilities in the region have outage statistics with relatively high values compared to their provincial counterparts.
SAIFI values for three utilities in the territories were higher than for any provinces, an analysis by The Energy Mix shows. The three-year average for Yukon Energy Corporation from 2017 to 2019 was highest, with a value of 11.3, while the five-year average for the Northwest Territories Power Corporation (NTPC) from 2018 to 2022 was 9.7. In Nunavut, Qulliq Energy Corporation had an average SAIFI of 7.1 from 2019 to 2022.
SAIDI values for the territories were more varied, with NTPC noting in its annual report that its outage duration is typically lower than the average for the provinces—its five-year average was 0.5, which would be tied with the lowest in the Globe’s ranking. Yukon Energy’s average SAIDI was 7.0, while Qulliq Energy’s was 4.3.
“The territories are often excluded when it comes to research on the future of Canada’s electricity grid,” writes The Canadian Press, leaving experts to rely on provincial information when they’re working on energy policy north of 60°.
In a May, 2022 report that set a course for Canada to achieve 100% zero-emission electricity by 2035 with an electricity system that prioritizes renewable energy, the David Suzuki Foundation focused on the provinces but not the territories. “That’s not at all to say that the energy transition, energy sovereignty, and specific solutions to these problems aren’t absolutely crucial in the North as well,” DSF climate solutions policy analyst Stephen Thomas said at the time. “We just think that’s a different problem to solve.”