Provincial grid strained by extreme cold weather; officials thank public for conservation efforts
Frigid temperatures gripping much of Canada have placed immense strain on electrical grids this week, with Alberta’s province-wide grid nearly being pushed to the brink.
Twice in the past week, the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) has been forced to issue province-wide alerts asking Albertans to conserve electricity usage to avoid widespread rotating outages. The first Grid Alert was issued on Saturday and the second came Monday afternoon. Both times, officials say Albertans responded admirably to reduce consumption and avert outages.
“Albertans should be proud about how they responded to this situation,” Alberta’s Energy Minister Peter Guthrie said, thanking residents for their conservation efforts. “The AESO confirms that Albertans made a difference by lowering their consumption during critical hours.”
Polar vortex drives demand to record levels
The extreme cold weather, part of an arctic air mass descending from the polar vortex, has sent electricity demand in Alberta skyrocketing. Last Saturday, the province set a new all-time record winter peak demand of 11,719 megawatts (MW), surpassing the previous record of 11,697 MW from January 2021.
This increased pressure on the provincial grid, coupled with temporary generation shortfalls when some supply was unexpectedly lost, left Alberta teetering dangerously close to load shedding.
“At one point on Saturday evening the AESO confirmed that the province was within thirty minutes of rotating outages if further action was not taken,” Guthrie said.
Quick consumer action prevents outages
Once emergency alerts were issued urging conservation, officials say Albertans responded rapidly to reduce their power draw. Within minutes, the province saw a nearly 700 MW reduction in consumption as residents turned down thermostats, delayed using major appliances, and took other energy saving measures.
“Albertans made a difference by lowering their consumption during critical hours on the weekend,” AESO President Mike Law said, thanking residents for their quick action.
That temporary dip was enough to stabilize the strained grid and avoid the need for rolling blackouts. Relief also came on Saturday night as some delayed generator restarts came back online. Further alerts were issued Sunday and Monday as the sustained cold kept pressure high, but no outages have occurred.
Weather relief expected later this week
With temperatures forecast to moderate slightly in the coming days, officials are hopeful the worst is over for now. However, they warn the grid will likely remain vulnerable through mid-week given persistent cold.
“The weather forecast looks more positive heading into late this week, but we’re not out of the woods yet,” Guthrie cautioned. He said the province could see continued high demand above 11,000 MW for the next few days.
Longer range forecasts point to potential for another cold snap late next week, sparking worries the grid could face renewed strain. For now, officials are asking Albertans to remain vigilant about conservation as the province grapples with this extended cold blast.
AESO reviewing events to boost winter readiness
The close calls this month have shone a spotlight on winter readiness of Alberta’s electricity grid. AESO says it will thoroughly analyze these events to determine what improvements may be needed, especially as extreme weather events become more frequent.
“The AESO conducts a lessons-learned review after every Grid Alert where we will gather data to understand exactly what happened during the power system scarcity, what actions were effective in restoring balance, and what market and operational design changes, if any, need to be considered for the future,” a spokesperson said.
Recommendations may include building in a larger supply buffer, incentives to smooth peak demand swings, or infrastructure upgrades to handle severe weather scenarios.
With Alberta midway through a major transition from coal power to natural gas and renewables like wind and solar, balancing supply and peak demand has become more complex. These winter events underscore the need to ensure reliability remains rock-solid regardless of conditions.
Opposition warns against over-reliance on renewables
Alberta’s Opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) warned against over-reliance on intermittent renewable generation as the province moves to phase out coal power.
“We support renewable energy, but we have concerns about phasing out coal too quickly without ensuring replacement baseload capacity from sources like natural gas is online,” said NDP MLA Shannon Phillips.
She cautioned against reliance on importing power from neighbors like Saskatchewan, citing risks during prolonged cold snaps when external supplies may also be tight. “We cannot jeopardize energy security and affordability for Albertans,” Phillips said.
UCP defends transition plan, says grid was well-prepared
The United Conservative Party (UCP) government maintains that adequate generation is in place and last week’s events were an anomaly. Minister Guthrie defended the province’s transition strategy, saying the Close calls this month have shone a spotlight on readiness of Alberta’s electricity grid for extreme winter demand. AESO says it will thoroughly analyze these events to determine what improvements may be needed.
With Alberta midway through a major transition from coal power to natural gas and renewables like wind and solar, balancing peak supply and demand has become more complex. This month’s cold snap provided a critical test of the changing power grid.
Recommendations coming out of a post-event analysis may include:
- Building in a larger supply buffer to handle unexpected plant outages
- Incentives and technology to smooth peak demand instead of load shedding
- Infrastructure upgrades to boost winter-readiness
- Increased ties to external grids to access emergency power
UCP stresses that generation capacity remains robust through the transition period. However, the NDP warns against over-reliance on imported or intermittent supply as baseload coal plants retire.
Ensuring rock-solid reliability and affordability for consumers will be paramount as Alberta charts its future electricity mix. This winter’s challenges highlight that extreme, prolonged cold can stretch any grid to its limits.
With the planet facing increased weather volatility ahead, the AESO analysis will be crucial to boost the resilience of Alberta’s electricity infrastructure. Nimble responses from Albertans this month demonstrated that public action can be pivotal in crisis moments to keep the lights on.
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