Keepers of the grid ward off the helter-swelter

Friday, July 22, 2011 – Globe and Mail

Squiggly neon lines zag between shifting digits and along X-Y axes, projected onto a triptych of imposing black wall panels. Somewhere in the foreground, a computer emits a faint “whoop-whoop.”

Operators sit or stand in front of banks of monitors. Each computer looks like the PC in your office cubicle, if your PC controlled electricity supplies for the homes and businesses of 13.2 million people.

This, in an undisclosed location just west of Toronto, is the multitasking brain behind the largest energy grid in the country, during the hottest week of the year.

On Monday, Saskatchewan set a July high for electricity use, and Alberta logged its hottest hour of summertime energy demand on record. The “heat dome” of sweltering air moved east, setting hottest-day-in-history records across Ontario and into Quebec.

As temperatures soared, Canadians turned up the air conditioning and placed greater demands on energy grids already struggling to keep pace with shifting populations while changing their structure to make use of new, renewable electricity sources.

At mid-week, here in the headquarters of Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, “the grid” is less an abstract concept and more a massive network of green and yellow lines projected on the wall, connecting generators like a transit junkie’s fantasy subway map.

For years, Ontario has been struggling with its demand for power when rising temperatures make residents forget the eight months they’ve spent shivering and crank the AC up. Way up.

The province isn’t faced with the threat of running on empty as much as it was several years ago. That’s thanks, in part, to a recession that shuttered factories and power-thirsty pulp-and-paper mills.

But it’s also thanks to a provincial juggling act between complex supply and capricious demand, and multiple agencies’ attempts to coax users into using less electricity, or at least using it more judiciously. On the hottest days this week, that translated into hundreds of businesses and homes across Ontario having their power turned down for 15-minute stints, as part of a program they signed up for to ease the burden on the grid when it’s most strained.

Outside it’s a bright oven of a day, with temperatures topping 35 degrees.

Inside the air-conditioned LEED-Silver structure that houses the province’s provincially controlled keepers of the grid, the temperature is kept at a cool 23 to 25 to sustain sensitive equipment. All visitors to the secured building must sign affidavits they won’t divulge its precise location.

For a group of people with tens of thousands of megawatts of energy at their fingertips, the mood in the control room is humming but relaxed. At the back of the buzzing, beeping room, someone is eating a Creamsicle.

Alberta’s record power consumption of 9,552 megawatts this week is actually lower than its winter high of 10,236. Like much of the country, it’s still a winter-peaking province – its demand for energy is greatest when the days are cold, brutish and short.

Kim Warren, the IESO’s COO and vice-president of operations, remembers when Ontario was in the same boat, when he first started working in the province’s energy control room in 1982. “We were a winter-peaking entity. Very much so.”

That changed. By 2002, Ontario became a jurisdiction that worked harder to cool off than to keep warm.

It has made things difficult: Transmission lines don’t take well to sweltering heat, and the energy load air-conditioning systems demand is more complex than most: The nature of the power AC demands makes it harder to supply a sufficient, consistent amount of electricity. So operators are left dealing with a system that can’t carry as much power just when demand for electricity is highest.

It puts a premium on flexibility and near-obsessive planning. Ontario’s energy operator has entire departments devoted to simulating what future demand might look like in different circumstances, and how to meet it.

“They plan it so we have adequate resources in all time frames,” Mr. Warren said. “Then I handle reality.”

Back in the control room, it means a lot of watching.

Watching the weather, the frequency and output of 130 generating facilities, the squiggly line of real-time energy demand to see how closely it matches painstaking predictions.

“There are somewhere around 2,500 things that can go wrong at any one minute,” Mr. Warren said. “You’re monitoring where they are, where they would be if any of those bad things happen.”

There are seven operators in the room, one of six 12-hour shifts. They know how much power they have to work with – about 28,417 megawatts that day. If all goes according to plan, demand won’t exceed 25,600 this week.

That cushion is key. It shrunk to a mere thousand megawatts Thursday, triggering requests for users to bump down power consumption during peak hours.

“When it gets really busy is when unexpected things happen. You lose generation or a transmission line, there’s an unexpected outage,” spokeswoman Alexandra Campbell said. “They’re always planning for what’s considered the next worst thing that could happen.”

This particular afternoon, that “next worst thing” would be Darlington going down. The nuclear power station’s pumping out about 3,500 megawatts at the moment – the biggest output of any single generator running.

As it turns out, Darlington doesn’t fail while a reporter and photographer are poking intrusively around the room. But if it had, the DARLINGTON label in the massive wall grid would light up; Ontario would automatically start taking power from neighbouring energy grids, probably in the United States, and the operators would have to put some contingency plans in place while getting operators at the plant on the phone to figure out what exactly was going on.

Mr. Warren, who in the past three decades has gone from assistant systems operator to director of planning and, as of this spring, chief operating officer, compares it to working as an air-traffic controller. Despite the stress and the eerie, periodic beeping noises, he swears it’s fun.

“It’s the best place in the world to work. It’s always changing. It’s always challenging. There’s always something new.”

Alberta’s energy demands

Ontario’s energy needs may have gotten a reprieve when the recession gutted big commercial users. But in Alberta, which logged its highest-ever summertime energy demand this week, big businesses take up the lion’s share of the province’s energy demand.

Taken together, industrial and commercial use make up 80 per cent of total energy consumption in the province. And Alberta’s demand is expected to nearly double in the next 20 years.

The problem isn’t with a lack of energy supply as much as it is with finding a way to transport it.

“There are turbines in the ground that can’t get connected to the grid because the lines are so congested,” said Dawn Delaney, a spokeswoman for the Alberta Electric System Operator.

“We need to provide additional capacity to free up some room on the lines and allow us to use that wind.”

That means taxed transmission lines are in dire need of an ambitious overhaul.

The electric system operator has drafted a detailed plan to do just that – through dozens of projects, to the tune of $13.5-billion.

And the Alberta government deemed the task urgent enough to approve the four most critical projects at an accelerated pace, without going through normal consultation processes.

All four, their price tags clocking in at about $5.2-billion, are now in various stages of hearings.

High-voltage, direct-current transmission facilities between Edmonton and Calgary.

A double-circuit, alternating-current facility connecting facilities in the “Industrial Heartland” on Edmonton’s south side to a new substation in the Gibbons-Redwater region, north of Edmonton.

Better infrastructure connecting Edmonton and Fort McMurray, in the form of two single-circuit, alternating-current transmission facilities.

A new substation in the southeast of Calgary to ramp up capacity in and around the city and provide better connections for nearby towns.

Power-saving strategies

One of the most significant shifts in energy delivery in recent years has more to do with behavioural psychology than technological advances.

Operators used to exist to give consumers the power they needed, period. Increasingly, their task is to persuade power-hungry residents and businesses to tailor their use to what’s available, and when.

“A big element now is we’re bringing the consumer into play, into grid operations,” said Kim Warren, chief operating officer of Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator.

Energy suppliers and regulators have a slew of programs enticing users to use less energy when demand is highest. Those programs range from blanket conservation incentives and charging a couple of pennies less per kilowatt hour of energy used during off-peak hours, to getting a jurisdiction’s most power-hungry industrial players to bid into the energy market – declaring that if electricity rises above a certain price, they’ll stop using it.

And sometimes, if you want, they’ll turn down your power for you – then pay you for it.

As temperatures crept upward in Ontario this week, energy operators switched off thousands of air-conditioning systems for 15 minutes out of every 30 for four hours in the heat of the afternoon.

The Ontario Power Authority estimated the province saved about 460 megawatts through its Peaksaver and Demand Response programs, which pay home and business owners who sign contracts pledging to turn down their power use when asked, or who get local utilities to install switches on their air-conditioning systems so they can be turned off remotely.

Adam White, head of the Association of Major Power Consumers in Ontario, says his clients are signing up because it makes no sense not to.

“I don’t know of any that are not,” he said. “Electricity’s a significant cost. It’s a significant issue of competitiveness. Anything they can do, any discretionary electricity demand they can move off peak hours, they’re doing.”

It makes sense from an environmental standpoint as much as an economic and energy-security one, argues York University professor Mark Winfield. As the grid becomes increasingly taxed and provinces draw in power from elsewhere, those last-ditch reserves tend to be from the dirtiest energy sources out there.

“It tends to be fossil fuels because that’s the marginal supply. It’s what you crank up when you have extreme demand,” he said. “If companies have an ability to vary their consumption, they actually get paid to do that – all of which makes total sense.”

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