East-West Grid for Canada?

Jeffrey Simpson, an editorialist with the Globe and Mail, is the latest in a long series of commentators promoting an east-west power transmission system for Canada. Simpson dresses up his column with a claim that he is breaking new ground, that nobody is “thinking about” this.

Here is another example from 2006 of an argument uncannily similar to Simpson’s.

Simpson doesn’t need science fiction like that delivered by “Corporate Knights” to read up on the east-west grid. He might try the Globe and Mail to discover some honest-to-goodness solid thinking on exactly this subject.

Dr. Jan Carr, a recognized authority on electricity matters, has noted in the Globe and Mail that “the economics of such a national grid would not be good.”

Part of Simpson’s argument is that the shale gas revolution “might” undercut Canadian electricity sales in the U.S. market. If Simpson looked at how utilities like Manitoba Hydro are today getting killed in the export market, selling at far less than their cost of new production, he would understand that this is already happening. However, Simpson leaps forward, claiming that now uneconomic northern hydro-electric generation provides a foundation for the costly new national power grid he envisions. In Simpson’s world view, consumers shouldn’t pay for the costs of the electricity they consume, rather the federal government must be a “partial financier”. The glue that holds these inconsistency together for Simpson is the need to decarbonize the grid.

Uneconomic power generation + costly new transmission + subsidies + green justifications = Simpson-style vision.

With political leaders in many provinces — particularly Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland — now deciding that power rates should be much higher, Simpson’s thinking seems more mainstream today than it would have, say 10 years ago.

A national grid for Canada is a dumb idea that could never get off the ground without massive subsidies by “visionary” politicos picking up visions from the likes of Jeffrey Simpson and “Corporate Knights”.

In the real world, physics and infrastructure drive the economics of moving power long distances. The resulting costs are ugly.

As Carr has persuasively argued, a far better approach than some grand national “vision” is improving the trade opportunities between adjacent provinces, where incremental opportunities for mutual benefit exist.

In the longer term, the potential for decentralized generation seems so vast that it would be unwise to make investments in long distance transmission that don’t pay off quickly. Ongoing progress in areas like micro gas turbines and natural gas-fed fuel cells suggests that decentralized grids have a great future. A networked grid seems like a such a good prospect that betting on long distance transmission seems risky.

Even if we collectively decide that decarbonization is a national priority worthy of significant sacrifice, Canada’s overall power system’s carbon dependence is so low relative to both our competitors and all the other major energy commodities we rely on that other sectors appear to be better options for visions.

2 Comments

  1. While I wholeheartedly agree that the potential for micro and distributed generation is fascinating, I don’t think you should dismiss east-west links quite so quickly.

    For one, the very reasons that are driving the cost of microgeneration down are the same ones that are driving the costs of long-haul power down too. We have modern thyristors and IGCTs to thank for the low cost of inverters, which are needed for practically every power source that doesn’t have a turbine (and even some of those). Those same circuits are the ones that allow us to cheaply and efficiently convert AC to DC at very high loads, which is how the Manitoba Bipole II works.

    Right now they’re talking about running a line from Iceland to France, a total of 2600 km. From the end of the Bipole to Toronto is only 2000, and shorter if you don’t follow the Highway 17. A line to the La Grande is 1500. This is absolutely within our technical and economic means – most of La Grande is already built.

    But the real question is not “can?” but “why?” Well, look no further than Ontario Hydro’s 1989 plans to build a line to Lake Winnipeg. The cost of building the line to Manitoba was a tiny fraction of building another nuke, and that was before the Darlington disaster was fully accounted for.

    More recently a serious problem for Ontario has been the high cost of delivery of power to places like Sudbury and the Sault. Smelters are closing down for this reason, along with other industries. A nice fat 5 GW line running down the Hy17 corridor would address this, micro generating fuel cells would not.

    Of course there is another solution that’s just as good – do nothing. That’s right, nothing. That’s because even if we don’t build such a line, the US is well into the process of building one. We can easily use our existing exporter lines to feed that and buy it back again.

  2. “In the longer term, the potential for decentralized generation seems so vast that it would be unwise to make investments in long distance transmission that don’t pay off quickly.”

    Good to see this argument. The same applies equally to large-scale generation. And yet we persist with Wuskwatim, Muskrat Falls and now talk of more nuclear in Ontario and Keeyask in Manitoba, all the while with export prices that are too low and domestic markets that are either contracting or growing at anemic rates of less than 1% a year.

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