Alberta’s emergency grid alert underscores vital role diverse energy mix plays in Canada

After a major cold spell affected the capacity of Alberta's power grid to provide electricity, experts weigh in on the need for multiple sources of energy

By Cody Ciona
Photo supplied to Canadian Energy Centre

The crucial need for Canada to have a flexible and diverse energy grid was given a practical demonstration this past weekend as frigid winter temperatures in Alberta prompted a grid emergency.

With temperatures in some places dropping to almost –50C with the wind chill, provincial officials issued an emergency alert asking Albertans to immediately reduce electricity usage, with the grid approaching maximum capacity during peak hours.

With wind and solar assets unable to contribute power and the unexpected shutdown of two natural gas plants, Albertans faced the possibility of rolling blackouts in dangerously cold conditions.

A day after the emergency, the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) thanked Albertans who responded quickly to reduce the demand load.

“This is an example of why we need to ensure that we have sufficient dispatchable, dependable generation available to us as a province to meet what is always our most challenging time, which is those cold, dark winter nights,” Michael Law, CEO of AESO, told the Calgary Herald.

The prospect of failure in the worst possible circumstances prompted energy analysts to highlight the critical need for a diverse and flexible energy grid.

“You could have had 50,000 megawatts, all the solar farms and wind farms in the world located in Alberta, and it still wouldn’t have come anywhere close to closing that gap,” University of Alberta economics professor Andrew Leach told CBC News.

Wind and solar can be major contributors to the grid when conditions allow, but when the sun goes down and the wind stops, base load power sources like natural gas reliably protect the system.

Leach said system operators need to plan for supply to manage adverse weather conditions to ensure the reliability of the grid.

“Whether it’s natural gas, nuclear, import capacity, battery storage, etc., geothermal, there’s nobody that’s arguing against that.”

With policymakers pushing for more electrification, University of Alberta industrial engineering professor Tim Weis said Alberta isn’t alone in the need for resilient and stable power supply.

“I think we need to wrestle with that and realize that we are moving into a world where there’s going to be more electrical demands on the system,” he told Global News.

“We are moving into a new world. We’re not the only ones facing some of these challenges. I think we’re a little bit behind responding in terms of dispatchable demand and allowing consumers the opportunity to automatically respond to some of these things.”

As the federal government aims to decarbonize Canada’s electricity generation by 2035 with sweeping regulations, flexibility for some jurisdictions is a key factor that needs to be addressed, said University of Calgary associate professor of economics Blake Shaffer.

“I do think that this shows us that no amount of renewables would push us to have solved that winter peak on Saturday,” he told CTV Calgary.

“And that means flexibility to have a gas fleet, for example, that is capable of being there for a few hours for a few days, maybe a few weeks a year. And we need the technical and economic setup to make that worth their while to be there,” Shaffer said.

“We saw this cold weather coming, everybody was preparing for it. The wind forecast was out a week ago we saw there was going to be no wind. Thankfully, the gas thermal fleet performed amazingly well.”

Natural gas generation was able to backstop the reduction in renewable power, said ARC Energy Research Institute executive director Jackie Forrest.

“The system delivered during the deep freeze this past weekend… so reliably that no one even noticed… I have long argued that gaseous fuels are needed in the mix for energy transition and the need to become cleaner; this is why,” said Forrest on X, formerly known as Twitter.

According to Forrest’s colleague, energy economist Peter Tertzakian, Alberta’s oil sands industry also plays a big role in power generation in the province with the prominence of natural gas-powered cogeneration facilities.

“The power that’s generated in this province during this cold spell, about 40 per cent of it comes from cogeneration. The bulk of which comes from the oil sands and all their big generators which have surplus electricity that they feed into the grid,” said Tertzakian on ARC Energy Institute’s latest podcast.

“I think it’s important to understand that any policies that affect oil sands also affect the electricity grid.”

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