Confusion still surrounds a series of rolling grid alerts issued by the Alberta Energy Systems Operator in which EV charging was discouraged
Earlier this month, during one of the coldest weekends ever in Alberta, the province’s energy operator issued four grid alerts urging residents to limit their energy usage or risk rolling blackouts. Not charging electric vehicles was one of the recommendations.
It all started on Jan. 11.
The average temperature across most of the province was -31 C (though Hendrickson Creek in central Alberta ultimately plummeted to a record shattering -46.1 C by Jan. 12). The Alberta Energy System Operator (AESO) registered a new hourly electricity demand record: 12,384 megawatts, slightly up from the last record of 12,192 megawatts in December 2022.
That triggered a series of four alerts over as many days in response to the peak demands. Each time, shortly after they were issued, demand plummeted and the alerts were lifted, only for the cycle to be repeated again several hours later.
“The AESO issues a Grid Alert when the power system is under stress and we’re preparing to use emergency reserves to meet demand and maintain system reliability. Consumers are asked to reduce their electricity use during Grid Alerts to help mitigate the possibility of undertaking more serious emergency measures to balance the system, including rotating power outages,” cautioned the AESO in a public news bulletin.
Of the 14 energy conserving tips provided by the AESO, one recommendation for how to avoid stressing the grid is to delay the charging of EVs.
“This is essentially a fairly significant step backwards,” says Andrew Batiuk, director of the Electric Vehicle Association of Alberta, in an interview with Electric Autonomy.
“From the [EV] adoption standpoint, people are going to be concerned without knowing anything other than it sounds scary. The shame part of that is it’s not all that warranted.”
Grid stress factors
The province’s minister of Affordability and Utilities, Nathan Neudorf, says in an interview with Electric Autonomy the answer to what caused the recent grid alerts in Alberta is multi-pronged.
First, a record-breaking polar vortex covered most of Western Canada.
Not only did this drive up electricity demand for heating, but the low temperatures and cloud and fog meant many of the province’s solar and wind farms were not able to generate power. (In temperatures below -30 C wind turbines are turned off because their materials become brittle in the cold and more prone to breakage; sun-obscuring weather impedes the efficacy of solar farms.)
And, in addition, two of Alberta’s natural gas plants were not producing power either, due to the cold conditions.
H.R. Milner Generating station’s output dropped to just 15 megawatts down from 286 megawatts on Jan. 10 and didn’t resume full operation until Jan. 16. Meanwhile, Cavalier Generating Station dropped from 112 megawatts output to 2.0 megawatts on Jan. 13 and didn’t begin to scale up again until Jan. 16.
On top of that, the polar vortex also diminished the capacity of neighbouring grids in British Columbia and Saskatchewan to produce the surplus energy Alberta typically leans on during times of peak demand.
(Ultimately, Saskatchewan was able to direct 153 megawatts of electricity to Alberta that, according to a social media post from Premier Scott Moe, came from “natural gas and coal-fired plants, the ones the Trudeau government is telling us to shut down (which we won’t).” BC Hydro also exported roughly 200 megawatts of power to neighbouring Alberta, generated by hydro plants.)
Finally, is the bigger picture issue: that record cold weekend is not the first time Alberta has issued a grid alert. In total, 21 grid alerts have been issued since 2017 and seven of them have been in the last 12 months.
“We need more generation and more dispatchable generation,” says Neudorf.
“I think we can do a better job of planning and optimizing our grid and our usage, which means we’ve got to look at a number of things; even our market structure, our generation mix, our planning and design, right through generation transmission distribution.”
EVs, not the problem
Grid alerts aren’t the only thing recurring in Alberta. Since August 2022, the AESO has also cautioned Albertans to delay EV charging each time one’s been issued. Batiuk’s opinion is that this practice makes EVs out to look like a negative and meaningful draw on the grid, which, statistically, they are not.
“EVs are, at least currently, minuscule in numbers in Alberta. For the grid alerts we have now EVs aren’t relevant,” says Batiuk.
As of March 31, 2023, in the most recent numbers available, Alberta had just under 10,000 electric vehicles registered.
In explaining to Electric Autonomy why EV charging is mentioned in the grid alerts, Neudorf admits the number of EVs in the province “wouldn’t be massive in terms of our entire load,” but the directive to delay charging along with not using stoves or turning off lights falls under the category of “everything that we can practically do for that peak period of time to take that that load down as quickly as possible.”
If EVs aren’t a meaningful draw on the Alberta’s grid, though, what led to the immediate drop in demand flowing the alerts?
At this point, there is little clarity being offered.
“I don’t have the details for which type of consumer went off, I just know that within a minute about 100 megawatts went off grid and within a couple more minutes another 100 megawatts,” says Neudorf.
“So, 100 megawatts is roughly what would be needed to power 120,000 households for an hour. Now, there are many industries also that are very sensitive to the price of electricity that, due to the day of the week and the time of the day, would have naturally been offline. Commercial industry, I think, was a bit of a mixed response because of different types of ownership and who may or may not have been on site.”
Electric Autonomy also reached out to the AESO requesting an interview about the grid alerts.
Our request was acknowledged, but not responded to. Instead, an AESO representative directed us to review a report entitled Forecasting Insights | AESO Engage.
For Batiuk, the lack of answers and transparency as to exactly what loads were straining the grid is problematic. If nothing else, he says, it only reinforces perceptions about EVs and charging that unfairly scapegoats them.
“A lot of people may be surprised to hear that industry is 50 per cent of the demand in Alberta. Consumer load is 20 per cent and commercial is 27 per cent. Farming and miscellaneous rounds [out] the remainder,” says Batiuk.
“But there wasn’t messaging around what actually led to that drop in demand. It would be great to have that front and centre because that diminishes people’s concerns. If industry can solve the problem, I don’t have to be up in arms or concerned about my next car purchase.”
More generation needed
Today, Alberta gets roughly 85 per cent of its power from natural gas generation.
Neudorf says his ministry, through consultations and reports, is focused on making a “plan for the next 50 years.” That will entail bringing online new generating sites under construction as well as branching out into other areas of generation and storage.
Ironically, that includes EVs, through the use of Vehicle-to-Grid applications, says Neudorf.
“[It’s] really exciting thinking about optimizing our grid micro-generation, micro-grids themselves and all of those smart technologies. It’s a huge opportunity for Alberta,” he says.
“We need more generation and more dispatchable generation. I think we can do a lot more in that space to get us in a much more stable position.”