A high-voltage power line stretching across The country could solve many of The provinces’ electricity and emissions woes. So why hasn’t it been built?
Canada may well be on the brink of an energy crisis. The solution? A national power grid connecting coast to coast to coast. It’s less far-fetched than it sounds.
The year is 2050, and British Columbia is parched. A prolonged drought has withered its forests and grasslands to shades of yellow and brown while smoke from raging forest fires hangs in the air. Flames skirt close to power stations — drawing in a phalanx of fire crews for protection. Mountain snowpack, a key source of water, is badly diminished and river flows are weak. As a result, power generation along the cascade of dams punctuating the Columbia River is now just a fraction of its normal capacity. In the intense heat of summer, energy shortages loom.
More than 3,000 kilometres away, the spinning turbines of Quebec’s hydroelectric generating stations produce a surplus of power that gets routed toward a desperate British Columbia. Travelling through high-voltage direct current cables, the electricity moves across the country. Along the way, power from sprawling solar and wind farms in Alberta is fed into the line to stave off potential blackouts.
The technology reads like science fiction, but the needs — today — are real.
This summer, the Kelly Lake Substation, which provides heaps of electricity to British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, nearly shut down when the Elephant Hill fire — all 192,000 hectares of it — consumed the nearby hills. Droughts, similar to the ones in California, are predicted to hit the province in the near future, and more than 90 per cent of British Columbia’s power generation relies on rivers. Across the country, other provinces are vulnerable to future power disruptions, not only from storms, but also from heat, drought, and fire.
The funny thing about electricity is that it rarely brings people into the streets in anger. It doesn’t get cleverly worded protest signs. And it doesn’t fracture friendships and family dinners.
But it has its own deeply troubling problems. Despite carbon reduction goals, Canada is still 132 per cent over its Paris Accord emissions targets. And 79 million tonnes of those carbon emissions — 11 per cent of the national total — are from electricity generation. The future shows little sign of relenting: demand for electricity in Canada is predicted to double by 2050.
More than 130 years ago, the Canadian Pacific rail line connected the country, its tracks boring through mountains and bisecting forests of pine, spruce, and fir. Today, Canada is searching for its next big infrastructure project to propel it into the 21st century. Already, a highway network links the rocky shores of Nova Scotia to port towns on the west coast. And the Great Trail winds its way — all 24,000 kilometres of it — from east to west to make up the world’s longest walking trail.
Dennis Woodford, an engineer from Australia, has another idea: construct a high-voltage power line from coast to coast that in one fell swoop could create a more robust power grid, deal with climate commitments, and cut emissions across the country.
Woodford has puzzled over the idea of a national power line in one form or another since the 1970s. As a young man, he worked on an engineering team that proposed linking up the electrical grids on the island of Tasmania with the state of Victoria. Later, he was part of a study on connecting part of France’s electrical grid with the United Kingdom. Both proposals were rejected at the time — and both were eventually built when the long-term benefits became evident, the latter becoming the largest capacity high-voltage underwater power line in the world. Woodford became well versed in thinking into the future. After moving to Canada 47 years ago for graduate studies, he worked as a transmission-line planner in Manitoba for 15 years. The job exposed him to what he claims are yawning chasms of missed opportunity.
Canada isn’t the cleanest place to get electricity. More than half of the Prairies’ electricity still comes from coal. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick both use it, too. And Nunavut is almost fully reliant on diesel. But there’s one sign of hope: by fluke of nature, many of those same areas are bracketed by provinces whose rivers produce more than enough power than is needed by their regions. In fact, the surplus is so large that in 2015, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec made $3.1 billion selling electricity over the border to the United States.
With coal plants closing, provinces are looking to change the way electricity is produced, and incentives for cleaner energy are in the billions of dollars. A federal government study predicts the eventual end of coal, as well as the increasing electrification of cars, will require increased generation by as much as 295 per cent by 2050 from 2013 levels.
Meeting that demand will be difficult. The bulk of that increase is slated to come from new dam projects, as well as wind and solar farms. But locations with high wind intensity and those large enough to fit sizeable solar power farms both tend to be found in sparsely populated regions, making it difficult to link them to existing power grids.
A report from the Canadian Academy of Engineering argues that Canada needs to think bigger — much bigger — about electricity. It suggests building a transnational power grid, tapping into new hydroelectric and solar resources to effectively double Canada’s installed generating capacity. “[A national power line] can have a big impact on emissions. You can get pretty close to not having any [coal and natural gas plants] at all, at least by about 2050,” says Woodford as he describes a network of compact high-voltage direct current lines first stretching across Western Canada and then eventually linking up with the eastern provinces to create an uninterrupted thread tying the country together, replacing the current latticed giants that run along highways.
“If you’re going long distance with alternating current, it’s like pouring water on the floor; it just goes everywhere. Direct current is like a pipe; the power comes out exactly where you tell it to,” says Dale Osborn, a retired electrical engineer who worked at the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, a network of high-voltage lines linking Manitoba to 15 American states.
The work seems to have already started. Hydro Quebec is vying to interconnect the Maritimes — prompting a flurry of talks between Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and PEI. Ontario and Quebec are also finalizing a deal whereby Quebec stores Ontario’s surplus energy in its reservoirs. Last year, thenbc Premier Christy Clark lobbied the federal government hard for funds to build an intertie — electrical infrastructure that would allow her province to sell surplus power to neighbouring Alberta. While it didn’t come to fruition, it’s a project the current BC government plans to pursue. Ottawa, for its part, is supportive of interties, dangling funds from the $15-billion infrastructure bank.
The biggest barrier is politics. Electricity is a provincial issue, and any approvals would require the capitulation of provinces to a national interest. If existing revenue-sharing squabbles between provinces on pipeline projects are any indication, a power line that bisects all of the provinces will be a bloody, tiring battle. Governments tend to be risk-averse when it comes to infrastructure projects. This hasn’t stopped some from trying; years ago, Manitoba Premier Gary Doer publicly called, unsuccessfully, for a national power grid.
“It takes a lot of vision,” says Woodford. “Because of the balkanization of the provinces, it’s going to take some movers and shakers to get things going. A lot of the people sitting at their desks at the moment probably have to retire and some younger blood has to come in.”
Other countries aren’t just catching on to the benefits of moving electricity long distances — they’re leapfrogging. China is building a thick web of high-voltage lines that rapidly move huge amounts of electricity. As many as 30 more lines are slated to come online within the next couple years, says Dr. Rambabu Adapa, an electrical engineer at Palo Alto’s Electric Power Research Institute — and a proponent of a trans-canada grid. India isn’t far behind, with a slew of high-voltage projects connecting the country. Norway and Denmark are also using similar lines to connect offshore wind farms to their existing grids. By 2020, a 1,100-kilometre high-voltage direct current line will stretch from Oklahoma to Tennessee, carrying electricity generated by wind in the former state to the coal-rich region of the latter. By drawing power from a cleaner source, the project is expected to offset 13 million tons of carbon dioxide. Scaled nationally, high-voltage direct power could cut emissions from power plants by 80 per cent over a decade, researchers in Colorado have discovered.
“When it comes to moving electricity long distances, other countries are leapfrogging Canada.”
“This is not a new topic,”
says Devin Mccarthy, vice president of public affairs at the Canadian Electricity Association. “The idea of building a national grid has been on the agenda in Ottawa for years.”
Still, it’s never had this much momentum. The next few years might — finally — bring some progress.
Recently, hints at a possible transnational electricity strategy have come from the capital. Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr is a long-time advocate of an east-west power grid and now oversees Natural Resources Canada — the body that could make it happen. When Environment Minister Catherine Mckenna unveiled a national plan to wean off coal, the government signalled that the deficit would have to be made up somehow. Both the Canadian Academy of Engineering and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce have come out in favour of the power line.
Even skeptics of a cross-country power line agree that it’s at least possible with current technology. “[Bringing] hydropower from Manitoba to the load centres of southern Ontario requires a couple thousand kilometres of high-voltage lines; it’s perfectly viable from a technological perspective, especially with high-voltage direct current lines,” says Mr. Mccarthy. “The challenge is the cost.”
In Manitoba, a high-voltage line under construction, Bipole III, has ballooned in cost from $2.2 billion in 2007 to $5 billion. And its length isn’t even close to what would be required to stretch across the country — 15,000 kilometres of high-voltage line is likely needed, with a price tag of at least $22 billion.
Woodford forcefully disagrees that price would spiral out of control. “A lot of people don’t understand that this can be profitable,” he says. For years, he worked on the Winnipeg-twin Cities alternating current line — a highly lucrative project between the United States and Canada that justified high upfront capital costs.
He and other proponents envision a system built up in stages to show, not tell, the benefits of the venture — much like a pipeline project. Beginning first with the western provinces, the line would later link up with Eastern Canada, all the way to the Maritimes. “You only build a line or section at a time. But every time you build a portion of it, it has to be cost-effective,” Woodford says. This cost effectiveness comes from using high-voltage direct current lines, he says, which are more efficient at transporting electricity over a long distance. He proposes having the line carry only a slight surplus over and continuing to sell the rest to a profitable market: the United States.
“You don’t have to worry about attacking the public purse here. The public purse could be part of the funders because they would get more money back in,” he says. There is undoubtedly big money to be made selling power, but uncertain construction costs make it difficult to tell just how much.
Currently, the best hope for anything resembling a transnational power line comes from Natural Resources Canada as it studies how to connect the electricity infrastructure of the western provinces. A connected grid, drawing on heaps of clean power, could be a catalyst in pulling Alberta and Saskatchewan off of coal and natural gas.
But developing two large grids — western and eastern — instead of a single unified line would miss some opportunities. With Canada’s massive size, peak consumption periods — the part of the day when energy usage is highest — are staggered, says Dr. Adapa. That means when Calgary and Vancouver gorge on electricity, Ontario is tucking into bed. An interconnected network of lines can divert power to where it’s needed most.
“It’s an uphill slog,” laments Woodford. Still, he’s optimistic about the growth of smaller projects. In the coming years, Western Canada may be able to circulate its power, drawing from dams in British Columbia and solar farms under cloudless Saskatchewan skies to supply the appetites of a coal-less prairie region. It may not look like the clean, simple dream he’s chased for the last 30 years. But then again, the future rarely does.