Will ‘grid diplomacy’ lead to decarbonization?

·5 min read

Tighter collaboration between provinces and states to plan and manage power grids is crucial to providing stable power supplies during the switch away from fossil fuels, a new advocacy group says.

Canada Grid was launched this week by The Transition Accelerator, a charity supported by a number of foundations. The group says capacity on the electricity grid will have to more than double for Canada and the United States to meet net-zero by 2050. The challenge is co-ordinating a robust power grid that can accommodate extreme weather demands as fossil fuels are phased out.

That transition is a monumental job for power grid operators tasked with balancing reliability and affordability in a quickly changing landscape. The solution, according to Canada Grid, lies with significant investment in transmission capacity.

“We need to be able to move clean power electrons across vast distances in order to decarbonize cities and our industrial centres,” explained Canada Grid managing director Philip Duguay. “Canada Grid is going to raise these issues, and highlight the deficiencies in terms of inter-regional planning.” From there, the group will encourage provinces and states to work with one another on common plans.

In a recent interview, Clean Energy Canada policy director Sarah Petrevan said clean electricity resources in Canada are in huge demand in the U.S. “If you look at the transition to net-zero, having a clean electricity grid is really the thing that needs to underpin everything else, because you're not going to get the benefit of an electric car unless your grid is clean,” she said.

Duguay said integrating power grids is a “very pressing” issue right now, because in the U.S., states are revamping how they plan transmission networks.

That reform process is being led by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) chair Richard Glick, who since his appointment in January under President Joe Biden, is prioritizing transmission. Transmission is understood to be a central pillar of Biden’s plan to have a 100 per cent carbon-free power grid by 2035; a plan that will require moving tremendous amounts of electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s needed.

Duguay highlighted a US$1.2-trillion bipartisan infrastructure package working its way through Congress.

“A major part of that infrastructure package … is a US$73-billion commitment to a grid deployment authority,” said Duguay, comparing the significance of that type of investment to the New Deal electric buildout of the 1930s.

“So my question to Canadians is: How are we going to react to this?” he said.

Duguay says it will be important for Canada to build more East-West transmission infrastructure to offer provinces more options, as well as increase capacity for North-South transmission. He also said Canada Grid will work across the country, but the initial focus will be on the East Coast.

“We need the provinces to take part in a robust form of grid diplomacy,” he said, referring to regional co-operation.

New England governors and Atlantic premiers already meet annually, but Canada Grid’s goal is regular co-ordination. What makes that easier said than done is that some provinces are directly competing against one another for access to coveted U.S. markets.

“We're talking electricity, and there is one major player, and that's Hydro-Quebec, and of course by extension, the province of Quebec,” said Dalhousie University professor Larry Hughes, the founding fellow for the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance.

“Energy is politics, no matter how you slice it,” he said.

Ottawa is working on a Clean Power Roadmap for Atlantic Canada, expected later this summer. Its previously announced Atlantic Loop was pitched as a strategy to phase out coal-powered generation in the Maritimes by increasing transmission capacity to flow hydropower from Quebec and Labrador.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan’s press secretary Ian Cameron said the department is working with provinces, and that clean, affordable electricity is a “priority” in Atlantic Canada.

Hughes said from his perspective, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are “sideshows” to the proposal. Rather, it’s a strategy to help Hydro-Quebec get to market by boosting transmission capacity in New Brunswicks’s choke points.

“Hydro-Quebec wants to reach New England, and they couldn't go through the West because of New Hampshire … blocking the Northern Pass route,” said Hughes.

The Northern Pass route would have connected Quebec to Massachusetts by cutting through New Hampshire, but was rejected by New Hampshire regulators in 2018. With that route cut off, Hydro-Quebec could swoop around through New Brunswick and Maine to reach that market.

Hydro-Quebec is also working on another major transmission line to U.S. markets. The $2.9-billion Champlain Hudson Power Express will essentially connect Quebec with New York City, as the city tries to move off its reliance on fossil fuels.

Last month, O’Regan and U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that will see the two countries work together on energy-efficiency standards, low-carbon transportation, clean electric power grids, nuclear power, carbon capture technology, and other topic areas.

Accompanying the signing ceremony was the release of the Canadian and U.S. perspectives of a North American Renewables Integration Study (NARIS).

That study is “the largest of its kind,” according to Natural Resources Canada, and “a first-of-its-kind” analysis, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. It’s essentially a continent-wide planning document that examines how clean energy could flow over the sprawling transmission network to meet changing demands. The study was a result of a previous MOU signed in 2014.

High among the study’s findings is that there are tens of billions to hundreds of billions of dollars worth of savings between the two countries if transmission capacity is expanded. For Canada, the NARIS report estimates infrastructure upgrades could generate between $10 billion and $30 billion for Canada over the next 30 years.

This story was updated to clarify the Transition Accelerator's supporters.

John Woodside, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting