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.