Re-wiring Ontario

Energy, Frontier Centre, Uncategorized, Worth A Look

A natural gas plant here. New nuclear reactors there. Massive wind farms in northern Ontario. Surplus hydroelectric power from projects in Manitoba and Labrador.

Who says Ontario is facing an electricity shortage?

On top of conservation efforts aimed at reducing how much electricity we all consume, the reality is there are plenty of opportunities – some cleaner than others – to generate the power this province needs over the next two decades. Even, it should be noted, with the shutdown of all coal-fired plants.

But generation is only part of Ontario’s electricity equation. Under-appreciated in the power supply debate is the crucial role transmission plays in moving electricity around the province. Power generation, like a car, is useless if there are no roads on which to drive, or if the only route into a big city is limited to one lane during rush hour.

“Transmission is undervalued; without transmission you can’t do anything,” says engineering consultant Frank Macedo, a 25-year veteran of the electricity sector who once oversaw Hydro One’s provincial transmission assets.

Similar in many respects to how we share the Internet, a transmission network lets us access the power we need without truly knowing where it’s coming from – it’s just there upon request, drawn from a big mysterious cloud through a complex network of high-voltage cables, towers and transformer stations.

We take it for granted. But experts say that attitude is no longer sustainable.

On Friday, the Ontario Power Authority will release a discussion paper outlining what must be done to the province’s transmission system as patterns of energy use, population growth, and power development change over the coming two decades.

The challenges are immense. If the province wants to double the amount of renewable electricity on the grid by 2025, it must survey the land for the best and most economical “green” projects, and make sure enough transmission infrastructure is built to not only collect this emission-free electricity, but to also encourage its development.

Population growth around the province must also be assessed over the next 20 years to pinpoint potential transmission bottlenecks that could cripple economic growth in certain communities.

Meanwhile, the McGuinty government’s promise of shutting down the province’s coal-fired plants, including nearly 4,000 megawatts at the Nanticoke plant on the north shore of Lake Erie, will require a massive re-jigging of transmission lines to keep the entire grid stable.

All of this must be done on top of the day-to-day maintenance and related investment that’s required to keep the whole system humming. “The average age of the transmission system is something like 56 years old,” says energy expert Tom Adams, executive director of Energy Probe. “It’s a priority just caring for existing assets.”

Need No. 1: Tapping wind

By 2025 the provincial government wants to double the amount of electricity supply that comes from renewable sources. That’s an increase from 7,855 megawatts in 2005, which includes generation from Niagara Falls, to 15,700 megawatts over the next 19 years.

Where will this additional clean power come from? Some through the government’s new standard-offer program, which buys renewable electricity at a premium from small producers of hydro, wind, biomass and solar power.

But a lion’s share is expected to come from larger wind and hydropower projects that are not near existing transmission corridors, or are located where lines are near full capacity.

“As you build out the grid you have to ask how much of it is going to be set aside for renewables,” says John Kourtoff, president and chief executive officer of Trillium Power Energy Corp., which has a number of projects under development.

For example, GE Energy recently released a study of Ontario’s wind resources that found the province could easily add 5,000 megawatts of wind generation to its electricity system with “negligible” impact on the overall operation and stability of the grid.

But the best wind resources tend to be far from where power is consumed. The challenge is to capture wind energy from around Georgian Bay, Lake Superior and James Bay, and bring it to power-hungry communities in southern Ontario, without breaking the bank on transmission.

Even wind projects around Windsor and Ottawa need to see transmission upgrades before development can begin.

“You can’t start soon enough getting some of these transmission projects going,” says Mike Crawley, president and CEO of wind developer AIM PowerGen Corp., which has a 100-megawatt wind farm along the northern shore of Lake Erie.

“There are a lot of companies investing big money in projects that are still uncertain. You don’t want to see that being scared away because of transmission constraints.”

Crawley points out that many wind developers have four- or six-year land options that are about to expire. “Some of those companies might decide to leave Ontario until there’s a clear roadmap on where and how this transmission is going to be built.”

The fact that it takes only a couple of years to get a wind farm up and running and more than 10 years to construct new high-voltage transmission links means transmission must be planned and built in anticipation of – indeed, to encourage — future development of renewables.

It hasn’t always worked that way. In the past, transmission and generation often competed for resources, and planning for one wasn’t necessarily in harmony with the other.

“Transmission needs to be integrated with generation,” says Macedo. “Right now, the problem is that transmission can’t be built unless there’s generation, but generation can’t be built until there’s transmission. So there’s this catch 22 situation, and we’ve got to get away from that.”

Still, observers like Adams say the government has to be smart about where it invests in transmission. For example, the capacity of transmission lines going up to Bruce County is currently being expanded to accept power from two refurbished nuclear reactors at Bruce Power and new wind farms in the area. That’s two bangs for the buck – a no-brainer.

But building an entirely new high-voltage line can cost roughly $3 million per kilometre, a lot of money just to tap an intermittent resource such as wind. “I’m not anti-wind,” says Adams. “But there’s a limit to how much wind power we can take, unless we’re prepared to blow the budget on transmission.”

Need No. 2: Leveraging water

One way to help justify such an investment is to learn from Quebec, which has built transmission to areas where wind and hydroelectric projects can complement each other.

Waterpower is emission-free, but unlike wind, it’s flexible and easy to control. When the wind isn’t blowing, a hydroelectric facility can increase its water flow. It can also turn down its water flow and build up its storage reserves when the wind is at its strongest.

Ontario has 190 potential waterpower sites that, collectively, could produce about 7,500 megawatts of power on their own. Most sites are located in northern Ontario where, like wind, transmission will be needed to tap it.

Another hitch is that many are in provincial parks or on Aboriginal lands, meaning a potential minefield of regulatory, environmental and land-claim issues.

The challenge for the power authority is to find the least controversial locations where wind and hydroelectric projects are clustered, ultimately improving the economic case for a speedy buildup of transmission.

“The optimization of wind in Ontario is going to be directly related to our ability to have some storage in hydro,” says Paul Norris, president of the Ontario Waterpower Association.

Another less-talked-about option is pump storage. This involves using electricity during off-peak periods or from wind generation to pump water from a lower location, such as a lake or abandoned mine, to a higher location, such as an artificial or naturally occurring reservoir.

When electricity is needed during peak periods, water released from the higher reservoir turns a turbine as it falls to the lower location. In this sense, a pump storage station is like a big natural battery that can store power during periods of low demand and release it when demand is peaking, such as on hot days when air conditioners are cranked up.

One proposed project in northern Ontario would spin eight turbines, creating 2,500 megawatts of power on demand for 18 solid hours – enough to offset about a third of the province’s coal-fired generation. The location is windy, meaning wind turbines could be set up nearby to help pump the water back up to the reservoir.

But again, substantial transmission would be needed to get that power to Toronto and the rest of southern Ontario. The numbers would have to be crunched to justify such a large investment.

Norris said pump storage, which is more popular in certain parts of the United States, has never been given serious consideration in Ontario. “My expectation is that it’s going to be an area of interest going forward,” he says.

Other areas of hydroelectric interest lie beyond Ontario’s borders. “Quebec has god-given storage,” says Amir Shalaby, vice-president of system planning for the Ontario Power Authority.

Ontario has several transmission inter-ties into Quebec. It’s conceivable, Shalaby once told the Star, to pump intermittent wind and off-peak grid power into Quebec for hydroelectric storage, and then access that power under contract with Hydro Quebec when Ontario needs it.

There’s also the potential, talked about for decades, of an east-west grid tapping clean hydroelectric power in Manitoba and Labrador. Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro wants to develop a 2,800-megawatt project at Lower Churchill Falls by 2015 and sell much of that power through Quebec and into Ontario. The McGuinty government is watching cautiously and open to discussion.

On the other side of the border, Ontario is still interested in Manitoba’s proposed Conawapa hydroelectric dam project, which would generate 1,250 megawatts of clean electricity – if we want it.

Wanting it, however, would require construction of a new transmission corridor stretching from Kenora to Toronto, roughly equivalent to the distance between Toronto and Orlando, Florida. The price tag, including generation and transmission, could easily approach $10 billion – a tough figure for any government to swallow.

“I think it would be the biggest expenditure ever made in Ontario on transmission,” says Macedo, the engineer.

On top of cost, the path would be lined with all sorts of hurdles – negotiating rights-of-way with Aboriginal groups, environmental assessments, reaching a fair purchase contract with Manitoba, and fighting community NIMBYism along a 1,500-kilometre stretch of country.

But if wind and hydroelectric projects in Ontario could piggyback any link to Manitoba, it might be worth the cost, effort and wait over the long run, says Macedo. A transmission line to Conawapa could prove a boon for development in northern Ontario, and would mark the beginnings of a national east-west grid.

Trillium Power’s Kourtoff isn’t so convinced. He believes Ontario would be better off developing transmission to tap its own resources first before building all the way to Manitoba in an act of desperation.

Rather than lock into a long-term contract with our neighbour to the east, he believes Ontario could position itself to become an exporter of its own clean power to the United States, if the political will existed. “Ontario doesn’t need to have a gun held against its head,” says Kourtoff. “Let’s do what’s here, in our own borders, then look outside.”

Need No. 3: Killing coal

But spending on transmission isn’t all about supporting generation. The government’s plan to shut down Ontario’s coal-fired plants is a case in point.

“If we’re cutting out all the coal, then major aspects of our transmission system have to be reconfigured,” says Adams. “At minimum that means vast increases in inter-tie capacity to other jurisdictions, new transformer stations and new generation.”

Nanticoke, for example, isn’t just a plant that can supply 4,000 megawatts of dirty power to Ontario. The massive generating station is an anchor for the grid, providing voltage support for the transmission system.

Voltage is equivalent to pressure, kind of like the pressure you would need to keep water flowing from a municipal water-purification facility to the faucets in your home.

Under the basic design of an electricity system, generating stations connect to high-voltage transmission lines (110,000 volts or greater) that carry power over long distances to local low-voltage distribution networks (less than 50,000 volts), where the electricity eventually makes its way to your home or business at a mere 120 volts.

Powering down a gigantic source of generation like Nanticoke would remove enough pressure that voltage on transmission lines would sink and power couldn’t be imported from Michigan or transmitted from Bruce Power. Greater Toronto would be in trouble.

“The problem is not insurmountable, it just requires planning,” says Bob Chow, director of transmission integration at the Ontario Power Authority.

One way of replacing the voltage support provided by Nanticoke is to put a cleaner form of generation in its place, such as converting the facility to burn on natural gas instead of coal. This proposal has been advanced by the Ontario Clean Air Alliance.

But replacing generation at Nanticoke may be just part of the answer. The power authority is looking at a number of options, including the use of advanced power electronics – something called thyristors – to manage and support voltage levels. Other more conventional devices can also do the trick, but whatever the approach it will be a costly and complex exercise. The power authority will have to choose the combination of approaches that make sense and are most economical.

Need No. 4: Anticipating growth

Ontario is growing – some places more quickly than others. The power authority’s job is to identify potential transmission bottlenecks in communities that are rapidly expanding to accommodate rising populations, particularly in the northwest.

Cambridge, Windsor, southern Georgian Bay and the Greater Toronto Area are among several communities identified by the power authority as “transmission priorities,” though building new lines isn’t the only answer.

In Toronto, for example, the two major transformer stations that bring electricity into the city – Leaside and Manby – are at capacity, and building new infrastructure to provide relief would take too long.

“In a built-up area, you can’t bring major transmission into the GTA easily,” says the power authority’s Bing Young, who oversees transmission needs for the Toronto area. “The only relief in the near-term is to provide local generation.”

This is why several high-efficiency natural gas plants, such as the Portlands Energy Centre near downtown and Goreway Drive Generating Station in Brampton, are under construction.

Looking longer term, the power authority says it is working closely with municipalities, provincial departments and other stakeholders to make sure transmission planning isn’t being done in isolation, as it was in recent years.

It’s also looking at how targeted conservation efforts and emphasis on efficiency can help defer the need to build new transmission lines in communities that would prefer to avoid it.

There’s a lot of work to do, but observers such as Trillium’s Kourtoff believe the power authority is heading in the right direction, at least from the perspective of a power developer. He’s more confident than he’s been in the past: “I can certainly say there’s knowledge there of what needs to be done.”