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Extreme weather a growing risk to Canada's electricity grid



Canada's electricity grid faced heightened scrutiny recently as severe weather conditions triggered alerts in Alberta, underscoring a nationwide vulnerability to the increasing intensity and duration of extreme weather events linked to climate change. The incident last week, where Albertans were cautioned to reduce power usage in frigid temperatures approaching -40°C, is indicative of a broader trend affecting power systems across North America.


Francis Bradley, CEO of Electricity Canada, emphasized the widespread vulnerability of electricity grids to the escalating impacts of climate change-related extreme weather. Over the past two years, new peaks in electricity demand have been witnessed not only in Alberta but also in Ontario during last summer's heatwaves and in Quebec during the previous winter. Such extremes are becoming more frequent across most regions of the country.


Similar challenges south of the border have seen electricity grids strained by winter storms in Texas and heatwaves in California, leading to blackouts and emergency grid alerts. In Canada, grid alerts in Alberta have surged in frequency, with 17 issued since 2021, compared to just four between 2017 and 2020, signaling an escalating problem.


Alberta, grappling with a transition from coal-fired power to increased wind and solar capacity, faces a unique set of challenges. However, Francis Bradley emphasizes that all Canadian provinces confront rising electricity demand driven partly by the surge in electric vehicle adoption and other clean energy initiatives. He points out that each province has its concerns, with Ontario addressing consumption during heatwaves and British Columbia and Manitoba facing energy mix concerns due to drought affecting hydro-dependent systems.


A November report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) raised alarm bells, highlighting an elevated risk of "insufficient energy supplies" to meet demand during extreme conditions across much of North America this winter. Though U.S. jurisdictions are generally less prepared for cold weather, parts of Canada, including Saskatchewan, Quebec, and the Maritimes, are flagged as being at risk.


NERC's manager of reliability assessments, Mark Olson, notes the challenge of forecasting electricity demand as extreme weather events intensify. Alberta, which experienced an unexpected surge in demand during the recent cold spell, exemplifies the difficulties faced by system operators in predicting and planning for events outside the norm.


While acknowledging the reliability of North America's grid, Rob Thornton, CEO of the International District Energy Association, stresses the importance of developing policies to ensure resilience and reliability beyond 2050. Balancing dispatchable and intermittent energy sources, investing in additional capacity, and building inter-jurisdictional connections are vital steps in achieving a robust electricity system.


In conclusion, the recent grid alerts in Alberta highlight the vulnerability of Canada's electricity grid to extreme weather, a trend mirrored across North America. As climate change intensifies, addressing these challenges becomes paramount, necessitating a strategic and collaborative effort to safeguard the reliability and resilience of the electricity system for the future.


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