The many factors behind Alberta’s power grid alert

Natasha Bulowski

Local Journalism Initiative

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is using a recent alert urging Albertans to reduce their electricity use as ammunition in her firefight against the federal government’s regulations to clean up Canada’s power grid by 2035.

On Aug. 28, the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) issued the alert due to a combination of hot weather, low wind generation and an outage in B.C. that affected Alberta’s ability to import power from the neighbouring province.

An alert like this means the power grid is under stress and AESO may need to use “emergency reserves to meet demand and maintain system reliability,” so consumers are asked to temporarily reduce their electricity use, according to the operator’s website.

In the days following the alert — which did not result in any rolling blackouts — Smith repeatedly said the province needs “more natural gas generation brought online asap” to backstop power from wind and solar.

In the case of The Aug. 28 power grid alert, the situation was a lot more complex than Smith made it out to be.

Low wind power was only one of many conditions that led to Alberta’s energy shortfall. Reduced gas generation and outages combined with issues with importing energy from B.C. played a larger role in the shortage.

Forecasts for Aug. 28 indicated there would be approximately 120 megawatts (MW) of wind; however, for almost the full duration of the grid alert, there were only about 50 MW available, AESO communications manager Leif Sollid said in an emailed statement to Canada’s National Observer.

“The overall contribution of wind wasn’t significant” when you consider that the peak demand was 11,188 MW, Sollid explained. “We were expecting low wind, and what we got was fairly consistent with expectations.”

There were also four natural gas generators offline or operating at reduced capacity, resulting in a loss of approximately 600 MW during the Aug. 28 grid alert, he said.

During extremely hot weather, the cooling ponds adjacent to natural gas facilities become warmer, and the water circulating through the plants can’t keep them cool enough to operate at optimal temperature, explained Sollid. To compensate, the plants operate at a reduced output or capacity.

Adding to the difficulties, one of the lines BC Hydro uses to transfer power to Alberta was out of service for planned maintenance, which reduced its ability to transfer power to Alberta by 466 MW, said Sollid. The line’s return to service and addition of the missing 466 MW was “a significant factor in returning the grid to normal operating conditions,” his statement reads.

Demand was also 100 MW higher than anticipated, Sollid added.

‘It’s criminal jail time’

According to Smith, increasing natural gas generation is the answer to Alberta’s energy supply woes.

In Smith’s sustained attack on the federal government’s clean electricity regulations, she regularly claims the incoming regulations will bar provinces from adding more gas generation.

This is false. The federal regulations will allow new gas generation, as long as the facilities use carbon capture technology to curb a majority of the planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions created.

Existing gas plants or those opened before the regulations are finalized in 2025 will be able to operate for two decades without any emission-capturing technology, according to federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault.

“I wish that carbon capture was as perfect as they think it is,” said Smith when this reality was pointed out to her in a radio interview with Global News. “They say that it has to abate 95 per cent of the emissions by 2035 or you go to jail. Let’s be clear about what it means. It’s criminal jail time.”

“Talking about criminal jail time is deliberately inflammatory,” a spokesperson for Guilbeault’s office said in response to Smith’s comments, pointing out that clean electricity regulations are the same as regulations for phasing out coal. Like the coal regulations, the federal government’s clean energy regulations will fall under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which carries criminal liability for failing to meet its requirements.

However, “like many regulations across government, there [is] a spectrum of measures to address non-compliance, that range from written warnings to escalating fines, which get bigger depending on severity,” the spokesperson told Canada’s National Observer in a written statement.

When it comes to stress on the power grid as Alberta’s energy mix changes, there are many ways to plan for and address the issue, said Jason Wang, an Alberta-based senior analyst with the Pembina Institute, a non-profit think tank focused on the energy transition.

Adding more renewable generation to the grid is one piece of the puzzle, he told Canada’s National Observer in a phone interview. Even when there’s low wind, it’s still blowing, he pointed out.

“Wind and solar are able to provide energy even throughout the winter,” said Wang. “In our work, we looked back to 2010 and found the worst days of wind availability and solar availability, and looked at: Will we have enough electricity in the system?”

The Pembina Institute’s analysis found the answer was yes across all the scenarios except for the worst-case scenario, where the longest stretch is 12 hours, said Wang. This yet-to-be-released analysis, which Canada’s National Observer reviewed, is based on a 2035 energy mix, evolved from last year’s mix. The model allows for new gas to come online, in accordance with the federal government’s forthcoming clean electricity regulations.

“That’s a situation where, you know, simplifying a little bit, if we built like one more (battery) storage facility, we would have been able to cover that gap,” said Wang.

More generation can help fill this gap, said Wang, pointing to the approximately $33 billion worth of investments in proposed solar and wind projects now stalled because of Alberta’s recently imposed seven-month moratorium on renewable energy project approvals.

“So much more generation wants to come into our market, and having a moratorium doesn’t help … with fixing these issues in the shorter term,” said Wang.

That $33 billion is for 118 proposed projects comprising 5.3 gigawatts (GW) of wind, 12.7 GW of solar and 1.5 GW of battery energy storage for solar projects, according to Pembina Institute’s analysis.

Realistically, not all those projects will be built, but it’s indicative of developers’ interest in the province’s renewable energy market, he added.

Last year, Alberta led Canada for renewable energy growth, accounting for 77 per cent of the 1.8 GW of solar and wind generation capacity that came online that year, according to data from the Canadian Renewable Energy Association.

Another piece of the puzzle is to reduce electricity demand by making sure our homes are built — or retrofitted — to be more energy efficient, said Wang. More energy-efficient homes use less electricity to stay cool in summer and warm in the winter.

Right now, Alberta only has one provincial inter-tie with B.C. Expanding the capacity of provinces to share electricity and adding more of these inter-ties will improve grid stability for all, said Wang. However, new transmission lines take time to build, “often in the order of a decade,” he added.

Provinces often have different energy needs in different seasons, so inter-ties are a mutually beneficial measure, said Wang. A recent electricity-sharing agreement between Ontario and Québec is the latest example of this.

On Aug. 30, the two provinces announced Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator and Hydro-Québec will trade up to 600 MW of energy each year.

The two provinces have complementary seasonal peaks in electricity demand: Ontario’s peak demand occurs in the summer, driven mainly by air conditioning on hot days, and Québec’s peak demand occurs in the winter, driven mainly by electric heating. The deal — which could start this winter — will “be a straight swap of capacity with no payments required by either party, protecting ratepayers in both provinces,” according to the release.

The agreement will not require any new transmission lines because there are already six inter-ties between Ontario and Québec systems, with a total combined capacity of approximately 2,775 MW.

Reprinted with permission from Canada’s National Observer, Vancouver, BC as part of Canada’s Local Journalism Initiative (LJI). More stories on

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