Maritime Electric's plan to create greener, more resilient grid too little, too late, say MLAs

Some MLAs on the legislative committee receiving the briefing made it clear the measures don't go far enough or move quickly enough. (Kerry Campbell/CBC - image credit)
Some MLAs on the legislative committee receiving the briefing made it clear the measures don't go far enough or move quickly enough. (Kerry Campbell/CBC - image credit)

Officials with Maritime Electric presented the company's plans for a greener, more resilient electrical grid, in response to the ongoing challenges of climate change, to a P.E.I. Legislature committee on Thursday.

But some MLAs on the committee said they don't think the measures go far enough or move quickly enough, arguing the company and the province need to move faster to learn and implement lessons from post-tropical storm Fiona.

Liberal MLA Robert Henderson pointed to a storm that hit two days before Christmas, knocking out power to 12,000 customers, as a sign P.E.I.'s electrical grid, weakened by Fiona, won't be able to weather the next big storm.

"An 80-kilometre wind on Prince Edward Island is not that infrequent," he said.

P.E.I. Legislature
P.E.I. Legislature

"We haven't even got into situations of sleet, freezing rain ... We're setting ourselves up here with no sense of urgency that there could be another major outage."

The next major outage could be in winter, said Henderson, with cold weather making the implications of extended outages more serious.

Maritime Electric told members of the Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability that peak wind gusts Dec. 23 ranged between 80 and 108 km/h. The company said 98 per cent of customers who lost power had it restored before Christmas.

Henderson and other MLAs questioned Maritime Electric's planned increases in its budget for vegetation management.

Half the power outages in the decade from 2011-2021 were the result of wind and trees coming down on lines, the company said.

Enrique Riveroll, vice president of sustainability and customer operations for Maritime Electric, told MLAs the company spent $3.5 million on tree trimming in 2021 and 2022, and has submitted a three-year plan to the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission that would increase that spending to $4 million in 2025.

Beyond that he said the company plans to spend $5 million a year clearing vegetation, which he said would put the company on a cycle of 7-10 years for trimming trees.

P.E.I. Legislature
P.E.I. Legislature

He said the increase was being phased in to manage "the impact on [electricity] rates … We believe we should take some time to get there."

Henderson questioned the delay in boosting the budget.

"This is an operating expense for our company," Riveroll said.

"It's the cost of doing business," Henderson shot back.

"I think it's gonna cost you far more than that, and 2025, that's two years away… it doesn't seem like it's nearly enough."

The company outlined further measures its taking to prepare to create a more resilient grid, including:

  • Building a redundant transmission loop in western P.E.I. to make it less likely that region could be cut off from power.

  • Launching a pilot project at a new substation in Marshfield to use solar collectors and batteries to allow the substation to remain powered during an outage.

  • Expanding its right-of-way to facilitate line maintenance.

The company is also considering implementing stronger design standards for things like utility poles, and considering where it would provide the most benefit to bury cables, Riveroll said. Those topics will be addressed in a climate change adaptation report the company will file with P.E.I.'s electrical regulator, the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission, by the end of March, he said.

But many of the proposed changes won't be implemented for years, said company spokesperson Kim Griffin.

Province of P.E.I.
Province of P.E.I.

"It isn't going to happen overnight," she said.

"Even the planning into the future in terms of grid resiliency and hardening the system, that is something that is going to take some time."

Emissions targets

The company has set a target to reduce emissions associated with the electricity it provides to customers by 55 per cent by the year 2030.

To meet that commitment, while keeping up with the growing demand associated with the ongoing electrification of power sources like heat in P.E.I., it needs access to more locally-produced renewable energy, including a further 100 MW of wind energy and 120 MW of solar.

The company has no current plans to create that generation on its own, Riveroll said, but would be open to "being part of that solution," partnering with communities to create more green energy. But Riveroll also wouldn't rule out a plan for the company to spend $100 million on a new diesel-powered backup generator for P.E.I., even as cleaner battery-based green technology comes online that could be used instead.

He said the fossil-fuel generator is based on proven technology.

"We have a commitment to our customers that when we require backup generation, that that backup generation needs to be available 24-7."

Kerry Campbell/CBC
Kerry Campbell/CBC

Green MLA Hannah Bell said P.E.I. needs to "decentralize" its electricity grid by embracing the concept of distributed generation – creating multiple, smaller sources of electricity in different communities so parts of the system can remain online even while others are without power.

It's a system P.E.I. Energy Minister Steven Myers has also said he supports.

But Bell said she doesn't believe Maritime Electric is interested in improving the grid to be able to accommodate that. She pointed to a change the company made to net metering in 2021, cutting by more than two-thirds the maximum amount of solar or wind energy individual homeowners or businesses can generate on their own.

"A private company doesn't have the incentive to do something which is going to decentralize the power that it has," she said.

"Relying only on the goodwill of the company to sort of make changes after Fiona isn't enough. We need to be hearing from government what lessons have they learned, and then how are they going to implement those?"