How to Mitigate the Risks of Decarbonization
In Ontario, the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) issued a report in December of 2022 titled, “Pathways to Decarbonization,” that estimated the province’s peak demand during the winter months would more than double by the year 2050. Under this scenario, Ontario’s energy supply would be largely decarbonized, making it much more dependent on electricity.
But while we are working to slash the use of fossil fuels, we continue to experience the impacts of climate change, including massive increases in severe weather events, extremely high temperatures, and droughts that contribute to wildfires. If we are going to be more reliant on electrical power, we have to ask the question: Does the electricity grid have enough resiliency to provide highly reliable service under the expected conditions? In Ontario’s case, the IESO admitted in its report that it has no information to share about how this could be achieved [“Pathways to Decarbonization,” Page 30]:
“As discussed throughout this report, ensuring reliability is of paramount importance. For a system to be reliable, it must have the flexibility to respond to sudden changes as well as extreme conditions. Future supply mixes will not have some of the traditional resources that currently provide these services, and ensuring reliability without them contains many unknowns. It will require detailed planning studies that incorporate novel approaches, tools and a thorough understanding of the location and technological features of individual resources as they are integrated into the electricity grid. As a result, the IESO has not performed an operability assessment on this scenario. The IESO will work with peers and industry experts over the coming years to address this challenge.”
Ontario experienced a period of extremely severe winter weather in 2022. One can’t help but wonder about the dangerous consequences that could result from decarbonation if the electricity grid failed or couldn’t handle the demand:
Without power supplied by the grid, electric heat-based heating systems are non-operable. Most natural gas and propane-fired heating systems require electricity to power their fans. Burning wood in fireplaces for primary heating is not environmentally friendly and can lead to safety risks. The same is true of other short-term heating solutions that desperate people may attempt. Professionally installed radiant natural gas and propane systems, and gasoline-based emergency generators are currently used to provide heat when electricity is not available. But under energy sector decarbonization these energy sources would be discouraged, or perhaps no longer available. Full decarbonization of heating will make electrical outages in winter months even more of a risk.
Manufacturers are working toward producing 100% electrical vehicles (EVs), which brings up the questions: What will happen if the electricity grid experiences an outage; how will people charge their vehicles? If there is no electricity supply, how will they be able to evacuate their homes in emergency situations? Drivers may risk operating their battery-powered cars at low-charge levels, which could lead to being stranded on highways.
Lack of lighting in our homes, buildings, and streets, due to power outages can enhance the risk of accidents, fires from candles and lanterns, and increased criminal activity.
Most standard Wi-Fi services will not operate during electricity grid outages. In some areas, cellular service is also not available, or extremely limited, during outages. Many people have eliminated landlines in favor of cellular phones, which could lead to a complete lack of connectivity to summon emergency help in case of illness, and the inability to get information on developing weather conditions or other risk factors (e.g., wildfires, flash floods, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis. etc.). Even if you have a landline, power companies recommend they not be used during a power outage due to risk of electrical shock.
Similarly, power outages caused by severe summer storms during heat waves can knock out air conditioning and result in life-threatening situations for those with medical conditions and mobility issues that prevent them from visiting available cooling centers.
So, we are left with critical questions. Can power companies improve the resiliency of their systems to significantly reduce the possibility of outages in severe weather events? Can energy storage and microgrid capability make a significant difference? Or, will every home and building require a professionally installed emergency generator that would operate on fossil fuels during the hours that such backup is needed?
The first step in assessing an electric utility’s ability to improve resiliency is to perform a detailed analysis of its outages over the last five years. This analysis should be carried out for localized areas that have greater or lesser expected vulnerability to specific outage factors. It should not merely identify the main reason for the outage (e.g., weather-related, contact with vehicle or animal, equipment failure, etc.). Rather, the analysis should identify the failure mechanism(s) and the part, or parts, of the utility’s system that were determined to be directly responsible for the outage. If a utility has underground distribution, was there a significant difference in the level and reasons for outages? In areas with above ground distribution, what were the main reasons for outages under a range of events? What changes in equipment or operational practices would be needed to move from the current level of reliability to something approaching the 100% reliability that would be needed under a complete energy system decarbonization pathway to provide for a society that will be almost entirely reliant on electricity supply? What would the cost be compared to the alternative of universal emergency generator backup? And what might be the carbon and safety penalties of such backup?
Hatch has innovative, cost-effective solutions and answers to these questions and more. We are passionately committed to tackling climate change by helping clients navigate the pathway to cleaner, low-carbon energy generation.
Director, Energy Consulting, Energy
Bob is a Certified Management Consultant and Professional Engineer with more than 30 years experience. He has been responsible for the execution of energy efficiency improvement, integrated power supply plans, electric power sector restructuring, market assessment and economic analysis projects for major Canadian and US electric utilities and government agencies.