Could Canada benefit from a national power grid?

Provincial power grids often connect south with the U.S., rather than meeting up with neighbouring systems in Canada. While experts say the country doesn’t necessarily need a national east–west grid, more interprovincial connections could speed along the progress toward net zero.

Canada’s electrical grid mostly runs north–south, with individual provinces trading electricity with their neighbours in the United States rather than other provinces nearby.

But as renewable sources of energy become more common, there would be benefits in provincial grids sharing energy, experts told The Weather Network.

Over the years, the idea of nation-wide east–west connectivity has been put forward as a way to improve the country’s energy grids. Among other benefits, this would enable the sources in one province to complement or fill in the gaps for power generation in another.

However, this level of connectivity might not be practical. And, experts said, it might not be necessary for Canada’s immediate net-zero goals as long as connections between the grids of regional partners with complementary sources of energy grow.

“We’re realizing the need to be more flexible. We need to take advantage of resources in different provinces,” Binnu Jeyakumar, the Pembina Institute’s electricity program director, told The Weather Network.

Teamwork makes the dream work

According to the International Energy Agency, there are 37 grid connections between Canada and the U.S. The number of connections between provinces vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Quebec has 15 connections with Ontario, New Brunswick and parts of the American Northeast, according to its profile on the Canada Energy Regulator website. (The profile doesn’t break down this number by where the connections are, nor does the site have this number for every province or territory).

Content continues below

According to Jeyakumar, increasing these inter-provincial linkages could come with some notable advantages, particularly as Canada works to decarbonize its energy production.

Wind Farm Outside Hanna Alberta

Transmission lines are seen near a wind farm located close to Hanna, Alberta. (Rachel Maclean/The Weather Network)

For one, doing so would increase the provincial grids’ flexibility. It allows connected provinces to take advantage of cheap wind and solar in one jurisdiction, and abundant hydro electricity in another. This means consumers across provinces can have low-cost energy from the sun during the day, and wind when it’s windy out, and have access to hydroelectric power to kick in at night, or when there’s no wind.

According to Jason Dion, senior research director with the Canadian Climate Institute, solar and wind power from, say, Alberta could be used by hydroelectric dams in B.C. to refill their reservoirs with water, enabling them to generate more power, kind of like “charging a gigantic battery.”

Canada is kind of lucky in this regard, he said. Provinces such as Alberta, with the potential to decarbonize with solar and wind power happens to be right beside British Columbia, which has solid hydroelectric capacity. This also holds true for other parts of the country, like hydro-rich Manitoba and its neighbour Saskatchewan.

READ MORE: How climate change turns summer into a real bummer for Canada's youth

Another consideration is that wind power can only be generated when the wind speed is high enough to turn the turbines. As such, connecting grids increases the likelihood that a wind farm somewhere on one of the grids will be producing electricity, according to Nicholas Rivers, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public affairs.

Content continues below

Rivers’ research suggests that an increase in inter-provincial grid connections could, indeed, be vital for Canada’s rollout of renewables.

In one paper, Rivers and his team found that the right mix of renewable energy sources and optimized provincial connections made decarbonization much easier for Canada. In another paper, Rivers and his colleagues show that the value (such as the power it generates) of B.C.’s Site C Dam, currently under construction, will likely exceed its price tag in modeled scenarios where the province and Alberta construct additional transmission capacity, and both aim for 100 per cent decarbonized electricity.

WATCH BELOW: Residents generate own power in off-grid community

According to Jeyakumar, there’s an economic rationale for an increase in connectivity as well. For one, updating grids across the country could mean a good deal of jobs. Building more connections between provinces also increases connectivity with the United States, she said. For example, if Alberta increased connections with B.C., it would be able to sell power to California, with which B.C. has connections.

‘Inertia and quirks’

However, there are many barriers that might hinder deeper ties between Canada’s disparate grids. According to Dion, the reason Canada’s provincial grids are more closely linked with neighbouring parts of the U.S. is often because the major population centres in Canada are closer to those in the states — take Vancouver’s proximity to Seattle, compared to Edmonton, for example. She added the cost of making new connections could be high, but consumers would enjoy savings on their power bills that would eventually overshoot this price.

Another reason is the provinces’ energy systems are often governed quite differently from each other. For example, while B.C. has a single provider of energy, the publicly owned BC Hydro, Alberta has a notably deregulated market with multiple providers. This would make it harder to forge agreements between the two provinces to increase their energy transfers.

Plus, he said the provinces may see an economic benefit in selling power to the U.S., but not other parts of Canada. Other barriers include provincial governments aiming to keep energy sector jobs, rather than having some of those jobs covered by workers in another province.

Content continues below

“There are lots of reasons. But just … inertia and the quirks of our institutions here are the main reasons,” he told The Weather Network.

READ MORE: Canada's oil production expected to drastically drop in net-zero future

Dion added the U.S. has a national electricity regulator, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates the sale and transmission of electricity, but Canada has nothing with that level of jurisdiction. As such, he said, any changes will have to come from the provinces themselves. Rather, the federal government can provide funding and research to help electricity system integration, he said.

“[The federal government] can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

As for a totally national grid, Dion believes that it could be a “potential end state,” rather than a near-term goal. Rivers shared a similar sentiment.

“It's not really part of the practical conversation at the moment,” he said.

Thumbnail image: Windmills are seen in Ontario at dawn in 2019. (Laura Penwell/Pexels)