Last week, Western Canada dealt with a cold snap we have not seen in several years. Temperatures dropped to -50C in some parts of the province of Alberta, with wind-chill levels even lower.
Was Alberta well prepared for this event? Not really, but we had enough hydrocarbon power generation and friendly neighbours (Saskatchewan, B.C., and Montana) to help us through a severe test of the power grid.
Our power system has seen some transformation over the last decade. We have shut down all but two coal power plants. Sixty per cent of our maximum power capacity still comes from hydrocarbons, but 28% is supposed to be coming from renewable energy sources, primarily wind and solar.
This was going to be a reality test on how well our integrated transitional power system was going to perform under extreme conditions. And it is only the extreme conditions that really matter.
Those sunny, breezy days, with warm temperatures in June, would be easy to endure if the power fails. It’s when the weather is life threatening that the system must not fail. We have to be able to supply reliable power, 24/7 to millions of homes during these events. Events with temperatures below -30C will generally occur a few times per winter on the Canadian prairies, so bone-chilling blasts from the Arctic should not come as a surprise.
It is important to note that 98% of Alberta homes use natural gas for heat. I cannot recall any shortage of this product in delivery to homes. I was confident there would be no disruption to supply, regardless of the temperature.
So here is what happened.
On January 7, at 1:11 pm, Alberta had an ambient temperature of -14C, with light winds and mostly sunny skies. The power generation at that moment is shown on Figure 1 below. Ninety per cent of energy demand was being met by coal and natural gas, even in relatively mild weather.
Total contribution from renewables was about 7% of total demand – 20% of their maximum capacity (MC). Solar power, at this time of year, with a 17-22 degree declination, seems to peak at around 500MW or about 30% of the MC, and, obviously, only during daylight hours. This is about as good as solar will be this time of year.
Saturday evening, January 13, Alberta issued a power alert when demand exceeded 12,000 MW, a new record. The province managed to buy power from a few western provinces and the state of Wyoming to help meet demand. Within two hours, consumers reduced demand by over 200MW, giving enough breathing room to avoid rolling brownouts.
On Sunday, January 14, at 8:20 a.m., the ambient temperature was -38C. Figure 2 breaks down power supply. Wind power contribution was nearly zero. Solar climbs to around 500MW for a couple of hours and then returns to zero as the sun sets. By this point, renewables have not been supplying meaningful power for the last four days.
Figure 3 below shows the summary of the combined contribution of wind and solar over the cold snap (~530MW max) against their maximum capacity of 6131MW. These renewables do not deliver meaningful power during cold events with current technology. Alberta needs a system that can reliably deliver over 12,000MW. The amount of redundancy that would have to be built, with this kind of performance, to replace fossil fuels, should not even be a consideration for demand in the winter.
That said, I am a supporter of renewable energy as part of our evolving power system. As we try to add electric vehicles (EVs) by the hundreds of thousands (as proposed), we will need every kind of power source available to meet expanding demand from EV owners as well as general energy demands from a steadily increasing population.
Alberta’s population, as of October 1, 2023, was 4,756,408. In the 12 months preceding October 1, the population expanded by about 194,000, or 4.3% (Current provincial population estimates, Province of Alberta Office of Statistics and Information).
It has been proposed by some that all natural gas heating needs should be replaced with alternative methods. This could drastically increase power demand in the winter. Something will have to create that heat for Alberta’s nearly 5 million residents, and it will surely require more power than the fan running my gas furnace.
During a Canadian summer, with mild temperatures, sunny days with a gentle wind, it is conceivable that a large percentage of our power demand could be met with renewables along with modest heating requirements. Boutique heat sources such as geothermal and heat pumps still need electricity. That power needs to come from somewhere. When it is not cold, renewables can contribute meaningfully.
But when winter really arrives, and the temperatures drop below -30C, everything changes. It won’t be long before we need 15,000MW or 20,000MW capacity. Wind and solar might be great options for milder parts of North America, but they do not cut it in Canada’s harsh climate. And, remember, it was not long ago that the sunny, warm state of Texas had a disastrous power failure in a nasty burst of winter weather. Fellow geoscientist and BIG Media Ltd. contributor Laurie Weston provided excellent analysis of that crisis, which occurred in February of 2021 (Power struggle- data analysis puts Texas energy debacle in perspective).
Nuclear energy is the only large-scale power supplier potentially capable of supporting millions of people while generating far less emissions. SMR (small modular reactors) might offer convenient networks linked together to help with this demand. The pursuit of nuclear fusion provides the potential for limitless power supply down the road, but much more research is required. Another Canadian geoscientist, Oliver Kuhn, illustrated varying levels of energy density in this article (Energy fundamentals – an essential element of the transition discussion).
The realities of a strong Arctic cold front make critical issues very real, very quickly. Even with changes in our jetstream and weather patterns, bitter winter storms are a challenge that humans can expect to see for as long as we are around.
What is clear is there is no room for failure. If the power goes out, people will die. The “End fossil fuels” folks might take a moment to reflect on how uncomfortable that extreme cold felt. It has been happening for hundreds of millennia. Until we have a viable solution to keep millions of northern residents safe, we need hydrocarbons, and we need to ensure that we have the reserve power to meet those demands. Period.