Alberta's electrical grid recovers after extreme cold prompts power outage risk

Residents had been asked to immediately reduce electricity use

A "high risk" of rotating power outages has eased in Alberta after an emergency alert was issued on Saturday night.

High power demand caused by the extreme cold is putting pressure on the grid, said the emergency alert issued at 6:44 p.m. MT.

Residents were asked to immediately reduce electricity use to essentials only. The Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA) urged Albertans to turn off unnecessary lights, avoid cooking with a stove and delay charging electric vehicles.

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The Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) ended the grid alert — meaning the power system is under stress and preparations were underway to use emergency reserves to meet demand and maintain reliability — for the system just before 9 p.m. MT.

"An urgent appeal to Albertans to conserve electricity tonight was instrumental in avoiding rotating power outages," said AESO, the independent operator of Alberta's electric system, in a release.

Environment Canada extreme cold warnings were in effect across all of Alberta on Saturday night. Temperatures are expected to reach -40 C to -50 C by Sunday morning for many parts of the province, said the warnings.

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The province's energy grid had as little as 10 megawatts in reserve power at one point on Saturday night, per the AESO supply demand report. That number jumped to 404 megawatts at around 7:45 p.m. MT.

Alert caused big drop in energy demand

Following the emergency alert, total power consumption declined across the province to 11,187 MW at 7:45 p.m. MT. AESO saw a significant 100 MW drop in electricity demand almost immediately after the alert was issued.

"On behalf of the AESO, I would like to extend my thanks to all Albertans who responded to the call for action," said Mike Law, president and CEO of AESO, in a release.

The emergency alert came just hours after the AESO declared a grid alert due to extreme cold, high demand and low imports.

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Alberta imports some of its electricity from other provinces, but extreme weather in other western provinces is impacting their ability to share, according to a statement from Minister of Affordability and Utilities Nathan Neudorf.

AESO's supply demand report indicated Alberta was receiving 239 MW from B.C., Saskatchewan and Montana on Saturday night.

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However, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that SaskPower was planning to provide 153 MW of electricity to Alberta on Saturday evening to "assist them through this shortage."

Alberta all-time power record set this week

It comes as Alberta set an all-time provincial record for power demand on Thursday evening as extreme cold weather blanketed the province. At 6 p.m. that day, total demand hit an hourly peak of 12,384 megawatts of electricity, beating Alberta's last hourly peak power demand record of 12,192 megawatts set on Dec. 21, 2022 during a previous cold snap.

Another grid alert was issued on Friday due to high power demand caused by the extreme cold, two natural gas generator outages and very low renewable power on the system.

Leif Sollid, communications manager for the AESO, says the surge in electricity demand doesn't come as a shock.

"Furnaces are running nonstop in people's homes,… block heaters being plugged in, people using space heaters — all of those things that are above and beyond our normal daily power consumption," said Sollid.

He says they're watching things "very closely."

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Siksika Nation, located just east of Calgary, remains in a state of local emergency. More than 50 homes were affected after ATCO reported a gas line outage, with some residents not able to use their furnaces.

By declaring a state of local emergency, Chief Ouray Crowfoot says there can be a streamlined response. The Deerfoot Sportsplex and Crowfoot School have been set up as a warming stations. While heat was restored to most of the affected homes by Saturday afternoon, Crowfoot says he wants precautionary measures in place considering the temperature is expected to dip to -50 C on Sunday morning.

"If the worst does happen and we're in a situation where a lot of homes go down, and the grid goes down, and several homes are without heat, there's a place to go," he said.

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What's up with the grid?

When it comes to the power demand on the grid, conditions are going to be "tight," Sollid told CBC News in an interview on Friday.

Because of the record-breaking demand for power — and the potential for that record to be smashed again — Sollid says AESO has a message for Albertans.

"If you can, please conserve electricity between the peak demand period, which is from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.," he said, adding that it's the "little things," such as not running the dishwasher or doing laundry during peak hours.

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Nonetheless, Sollid says they're well equipped for all the challenges that the extreme cold brings.

"I think it's important that Albertans understand we have very highly trained system controllers who monitor and manage the grid in real time. They see the entire grid second to second," he said.

"There's a lot of technology and training at their disposal to keep the lights on in Alberta, and they've done a very successful job at that over the years. We're counting on their work."

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This story, written by Brendan Coulter and Lily Dupuis, was published by CBC News on January 13, 2024. It contains files from Acton Clarkin.