Thousands are still in the dark after Fiona. Here’s how Canada can protect its power grid

Experts say Canada’s electrical grid needs some serious investment — and reinvention — if it’s going to both expand massively in a bid to fight climate change and become more resilient to natural disasters.

Post-tropical storm Fiona, which left hundreds of thousands of people without power in Atlantic Canada, is just the latest in a long series of natural disasters which left Canadians without electricity.

“I learned how to go camping again. You just kind of get used to it. You understand there’s people out there that have had a lot worse than we have. So we just sort of wait for our turn for the power to come back on and get back to some semblance of normal,” said Lee Fleury, a P.E.I. resident left without power for over a week in Fiona’s wake. Many people in Atlantic Canada still do not have electricity.

But Canada needs a new normal if it’s going to both significantly increase energy production and secure it against potential disasters, two experts told CBC Radio’s The House in an interview airing Saturday.

LISTEN: How Canada can build an electrical grid for the future:

CBC News: The House13:15How stable is Canada’s electricity grid?

Canada’s electrical grids are facing more extreme weather events and a massive expansion of demand in the coming decades. Energy experts Kristen van de Biezenbos and Bruce Lourie discuss how to make the system both bigger and more resilient.

Bruce Lourie, president of the environmental organization the Ivey Foundation, said Canada will need to double or triple electricity capacity by roughly 2050 to keep up with growing demand — in part spurred by new electrification pushes for things like electric vehicles.

“Electric cars, electric heat pumps in homes, more electrification in industry. So it’s a big, big task ahead of us,” he told host Catherine Cullen.

Storms highlight grid vulnerabilities

Canada has long enjoyed a relatively green electrical system which gets over 80 per cent of its power from non-emitting sources. But Lourie said Canada still faces a challenge in rapidly expanding the grid.

“In part, I think that’s made us a little bit complacent,” he said. “So I don’t know if we’re really set up for this big task ahead of us.”

Part of that task also involves making sure that the grid is more resilient against natural disasters of the type that left hundreds of thousands of people in Atlantic Canada in the dark after Fiona.

“What storms do really is point out the vulnerabilities of the system. So the vulnerabilities are there. The storms just make it very real and make the impact felt by the local people who lose their power,” Lourie said.

He said Canada must invest in projects that “harden” transmission or create “micro grids” of smaller, independently powered systems.

Kristen van de Biezenbos, an associate professor at the University of Alberta specializing in energy law, said one focus for resiliency-boosting efforts would be to bury power lines rather than have them strung along poles.

But paying for those changes could be “a bit tricky,” she said, since private provincial utilities (such as Maritime Electric in P.E.I. or Nova Scotia Power) may have incentives different from those motivating Crown corporations.

“Building more infrastructure is going to cost money and making changes to the system to make it more resilient is also going to cost money,” she said.

Both experts said that while adding renewable, resilient power capacity has a big upfront cost, it likely would be cheaper over time.

A need for inter-provincial collaboration

One factor to consider, van de Biezenbos said, is that the federal government traditionally has played a minor role in energy transmission infrastructure, leaving most of the work to provinces.

The federal government has set itself goals for boosting electricity production and improving the grid. National Resources Canada has a smart grid program to improve efficiency and reliability, for example, and the government’s emissions reductions plan also includes a section on electricity.

Part of that plan calls for “accelerating the development of transformational, nation-building, inter-provincial transmission lines” — connecting provinces so that electricity can be moved more easily within Canada.

That’s been a dim prospect in the past, van de Biezenbos said.

“There hasn’t been any pressure from the federal government to make that happen,” she said. “And the provinces are … saying that they don’t really see the economic benefits and that their own ratepayers are not interested in spending money to connect to other provinces.”

Lourie noted that Canada lags behind peer countries in the type of regional planning that would connect more areas across jurisdictions. National Resources Canada has established what it calls the Regional Energy and Resource Tables, which seek to promote collaboration between provinces and between Ottawa and the provinces.

In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said that in a future green economy, “a clean and affordable power grid —  one that is resilient to increasingly severe climate hazards —  is a massive competitive advantage.”

“Minister Wilkinson is laser-focused on working with provinces, territories, Indigenous partners and others to secure that advantage for every region of Canada,” said director of communications Ian Cameron.

The Atlantic Loop would expand electrical grid connections between Quebec and New Brunswick, and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, to provide greater access to renewable electricity, such as hydro from Quebec. (CBC)

The proposed Atlantic Loop, which would connect four provinces, is one example of that kind of collaboration, and premiers have called on the federal government to decide whether it will fund the estimated $5 billion project.

“The greater the integration across systems, the greater the areas, the greater the diversity of supply — ultimately the greater the resilience,” Lourie said.

While regional integration has not been the norm in the past, van de Biezenbos said there’s reason to hope that this may be changing now. Where once the feeling was “it wasn’t really going to happen,” she said, there appears to be some recent momentum.

“But it would be a big break from the way things have been done traditionally in Canada — and expensive.”