Danielle Smith warned about ‘net-zero’ 2035. Alberta power grid’s woes showed up early

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In white text on black boards, messages that were both visually and rhetorically stark flanked Premier Danielle Smith last fall as she launched a big advertising campaign against Ottawa’s clean electricity regulations.

“No one wants blackouts in –30°C.”

“No one wants to freeze in the dark.”

Both statements are universal truths, no doubt.

Last weekend, these sentiments were widely felt across Alberta as phones flashed with the emergency grid alert and Alberta Emergency Management Agency’s plea to switch off lights and unplug appliances.

Smith’s government had intended their grim black-and-white messages to be warnings about a theoretical 2035 under new federal rules, but here was the spectre of rolling blackouts, 11 years sooner. No one wanted to, but Albertans were perilously close to freezing in the dark.

Now, this may solidify the fear of more common grid alerts under Ottawa’s “net zero” system, which restricts the use of natural-gas power. Cabinet ministers played up the fact wind and solar power didn’t come through in last weekend’s deep freeze, and when Smith returns from vacation next week she might take some more whacks at that UCP whipping post.

But this could also focus Alberta minds on getting not just next decade’s electrical system rules in sensible, reliable shape, but also the system right here, right now. This alert had near nothing to do with Ottawa — it was a panicked call coming from inside the house.

Inflammatory rhetoric on either the pro or con side of net zero can fuel headlines and stoke political bases, but it won’t power Alberta’s energy-hungry homes and cities, now or in the future.

An ice fog hangs over a city.
A chill hung over Calgary neighbourhoods on Jan. 12, the day Alberta came close to rolling blackouts to deal with power grid shortages. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Keeping the lights on — and electric vehicles charged — will pose challenges in this province and in many other places. Every potential fix will come with its own suite of hurdles and problems, but it’s the sort of situation where nearly every potential fix may be necessary.

Reliability is an issue during weather extremes already, while the federal clean electricity rules are in draft mode.

The province had already begun work on a potential redesign of its regulated private market system when the cold snap rattled its grid more than similarly shivering Saskatchewan and British Columbia, which could both export some extra juice to Alberta. 

“We are working on reviewing the entire system to make sure that in the future … that this won’t happen again,” Affordability and Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf said this week.

He noted that the direct risk of this happening will be greatly diminished later this year when several massive gas plants come online, largely to replace the soon-to-be-eliminated (and much dirtier) coal-powered generators.

The lack of this capacity contributed to the “perfect storm” that Neudorf said triggered the grid alert, along with the deep cold spiking demand, the drop in power imports from chilly Montana and B.C., the struggles of a few midsize gas plants to function and, yes, the lack of nighttime solar and wind generation.

Power in, power out

You’ll note that this article has mentioned British Columbia both coming through with some transmitted power in Alberta’s time of need, but also having contributed to that need with an earlier drop in what came over the lines. That’s because the reality is that Alberta is far from the only jurisdiction staring down reliability concerns.

That hydroelectricity powerhouse of a province west of the Rockies was a major electricity importer last year, busting past records by relying on outside sources for one-fifth of its power.

Why? Drought reduces its dam resources. And although B.C Hydro came out with a $36-billion, 10-year plan to expand its capacity this week, that doesn’t help with the likely water shortages that will continue in this El Niño dry season.

In other words, it’s quite possible that British Columbia needs Alberta’s power assistance this year. That could come with help from the new natural gas plants, but also the wind turbines and solar panels that produce in much greater abundance during longer days and gustier warm months.

This is the thing about the intermittent nature of those renewable sources, which Smith often disparages and whose approvals she’s paused until at least February. They operate throughout the year on repeated boom-and-bust cycles, the sort of thing energy-minded Albertans surely understand.

Power lines are show against a blue sky.
British Columbia’s hydroelectricity exports to Alberta are a key part of Ottawa’s net-zero expectations. But with drought conditions last year, B.C. had to import a high amount of its power from elsewhere. (Chris Seto/CBC)

Several of the western United States are also ramping up their wind, solar and battery storage operations, the biggest source of power expansions throughout this interconnected western North American bloc. But with the increase in electric vehicles and heating on the rise everywhere, demand is expected to outpace supply growth, and reliability will become grid operators’ anxiety all over.

A November report by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council said the “changes the West faces are faster, broader, and deeper than anything it has faced before.” While the industry and regulators are acting on this risk, “the question is whether the West can act quickly enough.”

Observers of the federal net-zero plan preach for more flexibility to allow for enough backup natural-gas generation in times of rough weather, but flexibility also becomes the watchword for the systems themselves as their dependability gets tested.

Although the drop in power from interjurisdictional transmission lines helped cause last weekend’s electricity panic, the interconnections add options when a province or state needs help. Consider Texas in 2021, when a cold spell brought disastrous outages; it struggled on its own, separate from the interstate grid network.

Or not

When the question comes up as to whether the solution is more interties for more trade, or more wind and solar, or reliable natural gas, or small modular nuclear, the best answer could be: change the or to an and.

Sure, there are problems with so many of these solutions. Wind and solar have down periods, hydro dams flood land and disrupt rivers, interties face complex hearings and risk NIMBY disruption, nuclear poses a big waste question. And we know what the waste product is of fossil-fuel-burning natural gas plants: the emissions that will cause sea level rise and drought and worse wildfires.

Tradeoffs lurk everywhere, short- and long-term.

Solar panels in a field north of Metis Cross, in the area of Smoky Lake County, Alta.
A solar array that stretches over nearly 15 hectares of land in northeast Alberta, able to produce enough electricity for 1,200 homes. (David Bajer/CBC)

A new Alberta market system may create redundancies and push prices higher. The existing market system might trigger more grid alerts or blackouts.

Electrifying our transportation and heating systems will cause even more demand, further pushing us toward a labyrinth of possible solutions with their inevitable set of downsides. 

However, declining to electrify will add to those aforementioned droughts and wildfires.

Even if the Liberal government did the unlikely thing that Smith wants and scraps its net-zero regulations altogether, these challenges will still be menacingly looming over decision-makers in Alberta and elsewhere.

Yes, no one wants to freeze in the dark. Not this year, next year, or in a decade.


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