An east-west power grid, Canada's elusive national dream

An east-west power grid could help fight climate change and help Canada achieve its latest environmental goals. But it's an expensive proposal that would require political co-operation.

Inter-provincial strategy would help environment, but political will could be lacking

The price tag for transmission lines can be hefty. The longer the distance, the bigger the sticker shock. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Constructing an east-west electricity grid in Canada is far from a novel idea. Politicians and other leaders have openly mused about the idea throughout the last decade.

Sharing power between provinces is once again on the discussion table, as B.C. Premier Christy Clark pushes the federal government to consider a national grid. The idea is being pitched as a way to combat climate change and to help Canada achieve its latest environmental goals, which are currently under development.

At first blush, an east-west power grid seems like a no-brainer. While some provinces are blessed with an abundance of hydroelectricity, others are still burning coal to keep the lights shining, cellphones charging and coffee makers gurgling.

The east-west grid is again a discussion point in the country, largely as a solution to combat climate change and as a way to help Canada achieve its latest environmental goals, which are currently under development.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark is pushing the federal government to consider a national grid. She will host a meeting with environmental ministers from across the country in early March to figure out how Canada can reach the commitments it made at the UN climate conference in Paris. 
British Columbia Premier Christy Clark is asking the federal government to help build new electrical infrastructure that would allow B.C. to sell hydro to Alberta. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Clark is asking for help from the federal government to build new electrical infrastructure that would allow B.C. to sell hydro to Alberta, which is in the midst of a massive shift away from coal-fired energy.

"If we had a hydro intertie between British Columbia and Alberta that could carry a heavy load, we're 93 per cent clean energy in B.C., we can easily help Alberta get off coal and do that in a way that creates an east to west partnership. It's all Canadian, it's all clean," said Clark on CBC's The House.

The question is whether this is just another leader floating the idea or whether the conditions have changed and the stage is now set to start building.

A big and expensive idea

Similar to most large infrastructure projects, the price tag for transmission lines can be hefty. The longer the distance, the bigger the sticker shock.

In Manitoba, the cost estimate of the Bipole III transmission line has climbed from  $2.2 billion in 2007, to $3.3 billion in 2011, and up to $4.6 billion in 2014. It's a 1,400-kilometre line. An east-west grid connecting the four western Canadian provinces would likely span at least 2,000 kilometres. 

A second impediment stands in the way of an agreement between provinces. It's not only having the political will to strike such a deal, but finding out how one province's system can mesh with another. This would be complicated in the case of Alberta, which has a deregulated electricity market, where private companies can build power plants and transmission lines under the watch of regulators. 

Maybe that's why Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has been cool to the idea of an east-west grid, describing it as "a bit hypothetical."

Traditionally, electricity has flowed north-south because distances between Canadian supply and U.S. demand can be shorter than the east-west gap between generation in one province and demand in another.

Time to build

While the Alberta premier isn't sold on the idea, she knows her province is searching for a source of juice for the future. Currently, 55 per cent of Alberta's power comes from coal, so replacing that capacity will be challenging. The province is speeding up the process of decommissioning all of its coal power plants. New natural gas burning facilities are expected to make up much of the shortfall. They produce far less emissions than coal, but still are not nearly as clean as renewable energy, such as hydroelectricity.

As the B.C. premier suggests, connecting the two provinces could create a Canadian solution to the problem.

Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec produce excess electricity they often sell to the United States. At the same time, other provinces like Alberta and British Columbia have to import electricity in periods of peak demand

In 2014, Canada exported 59.1 terawatt hours of electricity, but it also imported 12.8 terawatt hours. An east-west grid would share more power between provinces and reduce the need for buying and selling south of the border.

As provinces strive to reduce greenhouse gases, it's difficult to argue against the environmental benefits of hydroelectricity, especially as a replacement for coal power plants. That's why an east-west grid could benefit Canada and why some environmentalists support such a plan.

In general, "a well-planned grid offers greater electric reliability and business opportunities for the renewable energy industry," electricity consultant Dennis Woodford, the president of Electranix Corp, wrote recently on the topic of an east-west grid.

Will it be built?

A somewhat obvious supporter is Scott Thon, the chief executive of transmission company Altalink and chair of the Canadian Electricity Association. He sees value in connecting provinces, especially as more solar and wind power projects are constructed.

Provinces can't rely solely on those types of renewables, because they need to be backed up by another source of power when the wind isn't blowing or sun isn't shining.

Thon points to the Mid-continent Independent System Operator (MISO) as an example. It's a connection between 15 states and the province of Manitoba. Electricity is interchanged to keep everyone powered up.

"It's a bit ironic that that kind of value is happening with Canadian provinces connecting to the United States, but we can't seem to make it happen in Canada," said Thon in an interview with CBC News.  

An east-west grid makes sense, but he doubts it will ever become a reality.

"It will never happen, because it's a little bit like the pipeline debate we are having right now in Canada about who gets the benefits," said Thon.

About the Author

Kyle Bakx


Kyle Bakx is a Calgary-based journalist with CBC's network business unit. He's covered stories across the country and internationally.


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