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Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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Recommendations not (yet) followed: Ontario electricity planning process can’t feel the heat comin’ off the street

Easter Bunny, meet the Black Swan

A Black Swan event occurred in interprovincial electricity trade, beginning in November 2023. It consisted of Quebec importing electricity from Ontario nearly constantly, through nearly all hours of nearly all of the 200+ days from Nov 1 2023 to the present (late May 2024). To illustrate how dramatic this was, we’ll first show how it was from 2018 up to November 2023.

The left-most column of the figure above shows the general pattern of hourly flows, by the day of the week, across the big Ontario – Quebec intertie from January 1 2018 through November 1 2023. The median values of each hour by each day are the white dots inside the thin horizontal bars.

The “line”of the median dots running from 1 a.m. each day to 11 p.m. almost looks like the spine of an Easter Bunny in profile.

And the second figure shows that pattern starting November 1 2023. As you can see, quite different from the 2018 to November 2023 pattern.

These hourly/daily patterns of import/export flows to/from Ontario are the landscape of electricity planning. The 24-hour daily cycle, embedded inside the 7-day cycle, is a snapshot of the pre-electrification Ontario – Quebec relationship—during an unusually warm winter, with unusually low water levels in Quebec’s hydro reservoirs. Time of day, and day of week, are the critical factors in any electricity system, no matter how large or small. They are the James Webb Telescope of electrical reality, whereas kilowatt-hours summed over months or quarters or years are like looking at Jupiter with binoculars.

Time, whether on a time-of-day or day-of-week basis, is a dependent component of the data—that is what, today, explains changes in the supply and demand data. Ontario had power to spare during this period, as it often does, and was able to pick up Quebec’s generation slack during a time when normally we import from Quebec. From the two figures, this appears to have been accomplished by scaling back the amounts we typically export to New York and Michigan.

The warmish winter of 2023–2024, together with the fact that Ontario has weaned itself off electricity for heating (yes, you read that right), made the November–May Black Swan maybe more gray than black. But that shouldn’t be any consolation for anybody. Because, how do we know it won’t happen again.

… and Black Swan, meet the flawed process

During the colder-than-usual March that followed the record-warm February, the Ontario Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) released its Annual Planning Outlook (APO). The Power Workers’ Union (PWU), one of the CNWC’s affiliated unions, well familiar with such documents, responded by releasing the first in a series of discussion papers. These should be essential reading for anybody involved in this sector.

Reading them, it is unmistakable that PWU has some criticisms of IESO’s planning process writ large. A major criticism voiced in the first of those papers is that IESO barely mentions space heating.

For example, in the summary document on the 2024 APO “Six Graphs and a Map”, the IESO in the section on electricity emissions mentions emissions reductions resulting from electrified transport and steelmaking but not heating. Heating, mostly using natural gas, accounts for over five times the GHGs from steeelmaking.

Similarly, while acknowledging in the same document that summer and winter peak demand may converge by 2033, unmentioned is the fact that heating covers a much larger temperature delta and that the IESO itself envisions heat pumps—essentially the same technology as air conditioning—as the basis for electrification of space heating. This would suggest winter peaks will far outstrip summer peaks.

The PWU’s criticism is well warranted. While the IESO does mention heating, there is little indication much thought has gone into it beyond the acknowledgement that it is an energy category that may be electrified. The IESO continues to use the word “energy” as if it is a synonym for electricity. On cold winter days heating is by far Ontario’s largest energy demand category, sometimes close to 40,000 MW. When and if heating is electrified, the patterns shown in the two figures above will look very different. That alone carries major implications for the planning of generation supply.

The reason natural gas has been meeting more of Ontario’s residential space heating demand over the past decades relates directly to another criticism PWU levels toward the IESO: there has been little effort over the same decades to assure cost accountability in Ontario electricity. As the organization responsible for administering the Global Adjustment, the IESO is perfectly well aware of the drivers of the electricity cost increases that destroyed the Liberal Party in Ontario. Under the Liberals the electricity sector was turned into a sandbox for green energy virtue signaling and no expense was spared. The result was the heating market was handed on a platter to natural gas, which despite being four times dirtier than grid electricity was one-fifth the price kilowatt-hour for kilowatt-hour.

Yet, in spite of mentioning that new generation supply should be cost effective, that criterion has in past decades been treated as a “nice to have” instead of paramount requirement. Do we or don’t we want Ontario residents to opt for the cleaner supply of heating energy? If we do want that, then we should do all we can to ensure that supply is also affordable, and that another, less desirable fuel is not more attractive by virtue of its lower price.

It ain’t no fun when the rabbit’s got the gun

In the CNWC Newsletter Spring 2024,, we give a different picture of the same situation, i.e. the warm start to 2024 and its impact on grid electricity and residential space heating demand, and flows across the PQ.AT intertie (which is at Cumberland, Ontairo, just downstream from Ottawa); see the figure below. Together with that, the two figures above show the impact of unusual flows to Quebec on flows to/from New York and Michigan. The Quebec “rabbit” in the first figure above morphed, over the Black Swan period November 2023 – May 2024, into something other than a rabbit. Or you could say that New York morphed, in the second figure, into the rabbit.

Given that those three import/export points are the most important balancers by far on Ontario’s grid, it would seem they ought to factor hugely in the current electricity planning process. The PWU definitely thinks so, and that’s where we’ll pick up the conversation next time.

Stay tuned.

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