Satellite image of the intertie connecting British Columbia and Alberta's electricity grids.

Ties that Bind: The intertie connecting British Columbia and Alberta’s electricity grids appears just to the left of center in this satellite image as a broad ‘scar’ across the forested southern flank of Mount Tecumseh. This view is looking east from British Columbia into Alberta, through the Crow’s Nest Pass.

Alberta’s grid needs cleaning up, and its hydro-powered next-door neighbour could help. But not in the way that you might think.

Alberta’s oil sands sector is often in the climate spotlight, but petroleum production is not the province’s only carbon challenge. It is tied with Nunavut for the title of most carbon-intensive electricity system in Canada; coal and gas together generate 89 per cent of its supply. 

Hope for a different future lies in its outstanding wind and solar resources—steady winds and abundant sunshine rank them among Canada’s finest—but also in its proximity to the largely emissions-free grid just across its western border in British Columbia (BC).

Energy systems researcher Jeff English from the PICS 2060 Project has investigated the role that British Columbia might play in helping Alberta decarbonize its electricity system, via the existing transmission line linking the two provinces over the Rockies.

The line can “officially” carry 1,200 MW of power, but it is currently limited to 850 MW due to reliability concerns on the Alberta side of the border. English ran some numbers about the cost and carbon implications of boosting its capacity under various climate-policy scenarios. 

As is often the case with research, he didn’t get the answer he expected.

“We found that BC didn’t have as much extra power that everyone assumes it does, and the amount of surplus energy that the province does have is very small compared with the amount that Alberta’s coal plants put out,” explains English. “So any influence that BC Hydro would have on greening Alberta’s grid would be relatively minimal.” 

However  English did find something else with interesting potential.

Electrons for Sale

In a carbon-constrained policy scenario, an expanded intertie—the technical term for a transmission line that connects two neighboring electricity systems—would reduce the costs of Alberta’s energy transition by allowing it to participate in United States power markets. 

“Alberta could build a huge amount of wind,” English says. “Then you run into intermittency issues when the wind doesn’t blow, and that’s where access to the US market could come in.”

Alberta has had a line running south to Montana since 2013, but it’s not well connected to the trading markets of the Pacific Northwest on the American side. It’s a different story just to the west, however. 

“Increasing capacity on the [British Columbia - Alberta] intertie would allow Alberta to directly participate in electricity trade, which will reduce costs of its renewable energy transition,” English concluded. (That said, he allows that there would be no way to guarantee that the power Alberta buys back will be renewable.)

Unbeatable Economics

Alberta’s interest in pursuing the clean-power transition has waned considerably since a recent change in government. But English and many other observers expect its interest in clean power will eventually return. For one thing, the economics are unbeatable. Alberta’s recent competitively tendered purchase of more than a gigawatt of new wind power concluded that wind was cheaper than new natural gas plants

In the meantime, the Alberta Electric System Operator is currently working with BC Hydro and industry to restore the B.C.-Alberta intertie to its full rated 1,200 MW capacity, and hopes to complete the job in 2020.

When Alberta is ready to restart its transition, the resource will be waiting. And a beefy new extension cord over the mountains might well be a piece of the fix.

Link  English, Jeffrey and Niet, Taco and Lyseng, Benjamin and Palmer-Wilson, Kevin and Keller, Victor and Moazzen, Iman and Pitt, Lawrence and Wild, Peter and Rowe, Andrew. Impact of electrical intertie capacity on carbon policy effectiveness. Energy Policy vol. 101, 2017