POWER LINES

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?

Sharp - - CONTENTS WINTER 2018 - By ley­land Cecco Il­lus­tra­tion By Koby Barhad

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.

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