Tighter collaboration between provinces and states to plan and manage power grids is crucial to providing stable power supplies during the switch away from fossil fuels, a new advocacy group says.

Canada Grid was launched this week by The Transition Accelerator, a non-profit supported by a number of foundations. The group says capacity on the electricity grid will have to more than double for Canada and the United States to meet net-zero by 2050. The challenge is co-ordinating a robust power grid that can accommodate extreme weather demands as fossil fuels are phased out.

That transition is a monumental job for power grid operators tasked with balancing reliability and affordability in a quickly changing landscape. The solution, according to Canada Grid, lies with significant investment in transmission capacity.

“We need to be able to move clean power electrons across vast distances in order to decarbonize cities and our industrial centres,” explained Canada Grid managing director Philip Duguay. “Canada Grid is going to raise these issues, and highlight the deficiencies in terms of inter-regional planning.” From there, the group will encourage provinces and states to work with one another on common plans.

In a recent interview, Clean Energy Canada policy director Sarah Petrevan said clean electricity resources in Canada are in huge demand in the U.S.

“If you look at the transition to net-zero, having a clean electricity grid is really the thing that needs to underpin everything else, because you're not going to get the benefit of an electric car unless your grid is clean,” she said.

Duguay said integrating power grids is a “very pressing” issue right now, because in the U.S., states are revamping how they plan transmission networks.

That reform process is being led by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) chair Richard Glick, who since his appointment in January under President Joe Biden, is prioritizing transmission. Transmission is understood to be a central pillar of Biden’s plan to have a 100 per cent carbon-free power grid by 2035; a plan that will require moving tremendous amounts of electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s needed.

Duguay highlighted a US$1.2-trillion bipartisan infrastructure package working its way through Congress.

“A major part of that infrastructure package … is a US$73-billion commitment to a grid deployment authority,” said Duguay, comparing the significance of that type of investment to the New Deal electric buildout of the 1930s.

“So my question to Canadians is: How are we going to react to this?” he said.

Duguay says it will be important for Canada to build more East-West transmission infrastructure to offer provinces more options, as well as increase capacity for North-South transmission. He also said Canada Grid will work across the country, but the initial focus will be on the East Coast.

Collaboration between provinces and states over power grids will be crucial to decarbonizing efforts, says new advocacy group @CanadaGrid. #cdnpoli

“We need the provinces to take part in a robust form of grid diplomacy,” he said, referring to regional co-operation.

New England governors and Atlantic premiers already meet annually, but Canada Grid’s goal is regular co-ordination. What makes that easier said than done is that some provinces are directly competing against one another for access to coveted U.S. markets.

“We're talking electricity, and there is one major player, and that's Hydro-Quebec, and of course by extension, the province of Quebec,” said Dalhousie University professor Larry Hughes, the founding fellow for the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance.

“Energy is politics, no matter how you slice it,” he said.

Ottawa is working on a Clean Power Roadmap for Atlantic Canada, expected later this summer. Its previously announced Atlantic Loop was pitched as a strategy to phase out coal-powered generation in the Maritimes by increasing transmission capacity to flow hydropower from Quebec and Labrador.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan’s press secretary Ian Cameron said the department is working with provinces, and that clean, affordable electricity is a “priority” in Atlantic Canada.

Hughes said from his perspective, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are “sideshows” to the proposal. Rather, it’s a strategy to help Hydro-Quebec get to market by boosting transmission capacity in New Brunswicks’s choke points.

“Hydro-Quebec wants to reach New England, and they couldn't go through the West because of New Hampshire … blocking the Northern Pass route,” said Hughes.

The Northern Pass route would have connected Quebec to Massachusetts by cutting through New Hampshire, but was rejected by New Hampshire regulators in 2018. With that route cut off, Hydro-Quebec could swoop around through New Brunswick and Maine to reach that market.

Hydro-Quebec is also working on another major transmission line to U.S. markets. The $2.9-billion Champlain Hudson Power Express will essentially connect Quebec with New York City, as the city tries to move off its reliance on fossil fuels.

Last month, O’Regan and U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that will see the two countries work together on energy-efficiency standards, low-carbon transportation, clean electric power grids, nuclear power, carbon capture technology, and other topic areas.

Accompanying the signing ceremony was the release of the Canadian and U.S. perspectives of a North American Renewables Integration Study (NARIS).

That study is “the largest of its kind,” according to Natural Resources Canada, and “a first-of-its-kind” analysis, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. It’s essentially a continent-wide planning document that examines how clean energy could flow over the sprawling transmission network to meet changing demands. The study was a result of a previous MOU signed in 2014.

High among the study’s findings is that there are tens of billions to hundreds of billions of dollars worth of savings between the two countries if transmission capacity is expanded. For Canada, the NARIS report estimates infrastructure upgrades could generate between $10 billion and $30 billion for Canada over the next 30 years.

John Woodside / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
July 16, 2021, 02:25 pm

This story was updated to clarify the Transition Accelerator's supporters.

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We need Ontario to upgrade transmission so it can import more power from Quebec . RIght now Ontario is going backwards by expanding gas generation facilities to fill the gap from decommissioned and out of service nuclear. Quebec has offered low cost long term contracts to Ontario. Ontario needs to act before Quebec signs with Northern US states instead.

Mainly they're planning on rebuilding/refurbishing nuclear plants.
I get more and more annoyed that Canada's simply ignoring what Germany put in place in the early 70s: all new bldgs having to be energy neutral. So all new housing developments were built with rooftop solar.
I fail to understand why profits for existing price-gouging "energy" companies are so important that we can ignore the things that are easy to do, that would reduce costs for consumers and taxpayers alike. Building out all the extra power lines to accommodate ongoing power company gouging-for-profits not only comes at cost to consumers and taxpayers, but ultimately increases the cost of electricity overall.
I fail also to understand how that's in the best interests of taxpayers and electricity consumers. Or how government's continued preoccupation with multinational corporate profits over wellbeing of the electorate doesn't get called out daily.
People accept it only because theyre so accustomed to it by now, that they seem to beileve there's no other way.

Transmission lines (grid connections) make sense when there is excess hydro electric generating capacity in adjacent time zones/regions. For example BC hydro to Alberta or Manitoba hydro to Saskatchewan to help both provinces to get off coal generation PDQ. Solar on new roof tops is a generational time scale solution. Transmission lines could be built in 2-3 years - especially if environmentalists get on board. A grid that connects Quebec to BC and back would be way better than any trans-Canada pipe line and would reduce the need to build new generating capacity in the short term while distributed generation (e.g. rooftop solar) which requires a smart grid retrofit as well as roof top units, gets up and running.

This is a very astute comment. Kudos!

Both Canada and the U.S. are banking on bad options — unsustainable, costly, and/or speculative technologies.
-EVs (cars drive sprawl, which in turn forces people to drive) instead of public transit.
-Carbon capture and storage (CCS).
-Carbon removal (AKA negative emissions).
-SMRs (nuclear).
-Big hydro (drowning landscapes; habitat loss; downstream riparian effects; mercury contamination).
All of which imply huge opportunity costs. Overlooking technologies, lifestyle, and design changes (urban design, building design, materials) that cut more emissions and reduce energy waste at less cost.
CCS and SMRs are primarily intended to keep Canada's fossil fuel industry on life-support. Fossil fuel subsidies effectively offset carbon pricing.
The one worthwhile climate proposal above is grid interconnection.
As for the rest, environmentalists should remain sceptical.

Another astute comment!

There are justifications to build both east-west and north-south transmission lines. As the world moves to greater use of renewable electricity the engineers of transmission corridors must consider both direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC) conductors and transformers. In addition, with renewables forcing the issue, grid ties must accommodate net metering (two-way flows) and smaller distributed power generation that complements regional grids and utilities. These initiatives can only result in more resilient and flexible overall electrical infrastructure and operations.

The advent of a national smart grid (still waiting for such foresight from our weak-kneed politicos) built with high voltage DC lines would enable the transport of very large amounts of clean power over thousands of kilometres and several time zones with acceptable losses to line resistance in the order of 3% per 1,000 km. Essentially, BC can send several megawatts to Toronto and Montreal at BC's lower nighttime rates to serve peak morning demand back east with less than a 10% loss. The flows can be reversed during the evening peak in Calgary and Vancouver, but perhaps not with the same cost differential.

Theoretically, an inter-provincial clean energy trading initiative could help offset much of the construction cost of future new generation plants that ratepayers ultimately bear. It will also enable the domestic economy to decarbonize faster through sharing existing energy generation in several connected provinces long before new capacity comes on stream. Profitable international, pan-continental exports from Labrador and Quebec to California, and BC and Manitoba to New York would be feasible. Joining power export surges using several provincial utilities to quickly send huge amounts of power to the US (and, for that matter, Central America) during emergencies. The power can also be traded at a flat rate north-south with the US southwest and their increasing number of very large solar arrays.

Perhaps the most interesting challenge is the management of the relationship between local renewable generation, like thousands of urban solar roofs, independent wind farms, First Nations renewable projects and so forth, and the prospective connectivity to provincial utilities. District-scale power storage is now being realized mainly with lithium ion batteries, but that is destined to be outcompeted by cheaper, longer lasting and less troublesome technology, like liquid metal batteries. Stable energy storage at scale eliminates all concerns about the intermittency of sunshine and wind and would compete directly with the huge storage capacity of dams and reservoirs without flooding valleys. It is also an alternative to the diminishing effects of melting glaciers on reservoirs over the next half-century.

It is now possible for households, farms, small communities and even larger cities and First Nations to become independent from the grid. This is seen by some utilities like BC Hydro as a threat to their monopoly and financial stability. When you've accumulated mega debt from projects like Site C, a dam currently under construction in BC's Peace River valley, the last thing you want to do is pay consumers enough for their excess solar or wind power output that will offset your revenue streams.

This latter point will be very problematic in the fight against the climate emergency without good political leadership. BC Hydro seemingly killed off a very large solar project proposed by the Tsilhqotʼin Nation in the province's sunny interior by refusing to pay an adequate rate for the surplus power after the community's power needs were fulfilled. The Tsilhqotʼin project would have been the largest solar array in Western Canada and was classified as a major contribution to the zero emission electrification of BC's economy. This puts the energy policies of the province into question, especially after premier Horgan decided to proceed with the $15B Site C project and the subsiding of LNG production with under-valued Site C power.

If the Tsilhqotʼin decide to tell BC Hydro to stick it where the sun don't shine, so to speak, and go independent and 100% off-grid, that puts other First Nations under a spot light for similar treatment. What if several Vancouver Island Indigenous communities decide to disconnect the power cables from BC Hydro on a renewable energy independence wave if they cannot sell power back to the grid at even a marginal profit and bring sorely needed revenue into their communities? What does this do to the BC government's self-congratulatory policies on reconciliation?

It makes tremendous sense to have a net metering policy in BC like many other jurisdictions. New York State allows you to put solar panels on you roof and sell the surplus back to the grid, and then pull power in reverse when needed. BC Hydro won't allow you to build a system with a capacity beyond the consumption of your household or commercial building, therein erasing any ability for thousands of homeowners to contribute even in a small way to adding potentially huge amounts of zero emission energy to the grid in future. But what if an entire town or city found that it could generate, store and distribute its own power at rates that outcompete the utility -- without the environmental damage -- and told the utility to go away? What constitutional clause will prevent First Nations from doing the same, an important point when many of them have permitted the construction of thousands of power-consuming houses on leased Indigenous land near our cities, and when many more will inevitably possess more land holdings as reconciliation produces more treaties and land exchanges over the decades?

Tomorrow's small distributed systems and today's large-scale grids need to work together with the feds to build a national smart grid that accepts power from all renewable energy suppliers, not just the most powerful ones. That is one path for reconciliation, resilience and security.