SaskPower crews were working west of Estevan on April 26, restoring power days after a major blizzard. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

I woke up the morning of May 25 and my early-rising wife informed me the power had been out for an hour. She expressed disappointment she couldn’t have her morning coffee, nor make a hot breakfast.

By the time I was moving, power was back, so no big deal. I had to reboot my computer (protected by not one, but two uninterruptable power supplies, but their batteries had run out). Good thing I saved that file the previous night.

But as I turned on CJME to listen to John Gormley, the news focused on a power outage that took out the eastern half of Regina.

My guess was thunderstorms the night before might have been the culprit, as the SaskPower map showed unplanned outages across central Saskatchewan. Outlook, Davidson, Englefield and Clavet were all out. The men and women in orange and white trucks had a busy day ahead of them.

It’s a good thing their trucks run on diesel, because if they were charging overnight, and the power went out, they’d have a hell of a time getting out in the field, wouldn’t they?

But these things happen. Storms, be it thunderstorms, tornadoes, plow winds, blizzards or frigid cold are part of the reality of living on the Canadian Prairie. And by 9 a.m., the power was largely restored.

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How many nines?

Reliability is sometimes measured in “nines.” If you did the math, I would estimate that most places in Saskatchewan see power outages like this totalling less than six hours a year. That would mean our reliability would be roughly 99.9 per cent. Some places, the grid is less reliable, and has seen more frequent power outages, and for much longer period. But if you said SaskPower’s reliability is in the range 99.9 per cent (three nines), you wouldn’t be too far off. To hit four nines, outages would have to be around 53 minutes in total or less over a year. And five nines would mean only 5.3 minutes of outages per year.

Some might think well, 99 per cent should be okay, right? Well, that would mean power outages totalling 87.6 hours – or 3 days, 15 hours, 36 minutes. And we’ve had people in Saskatchewan recently who endured that at a stretch. Think of the recent blizzard near Estevan that broke a pile of power poles? People went for days without power, and for them it was a crisis.

That’s because a nuisance can lead to ruin. Three days without power and everything in your fridge and freezer are likely garbage. And perhaps the appliances, too. All productivity goes to hell. No computers, you can’t even charge a cellphone unless you use your car.

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Three days without any power in -36 C can be deadly. Animals that need to be kept warm could die.

Energy is the lifeblood of our economy and electricity is the air that it breathes. Just like breathing, the second you stop, it’s a crisis. The second the lights go out, everything comes to a halt.

What does that mean in real terms? Grid reliability or lack thereof in Estevan, no less, meant that the local Dairy Queen lost its inventory a few years ago because the power was out for too long. That was economically devastating to that restaurant. Now they have a large backup generator, nicely wrapped with signage, immediately behind the store, ready to go at a moment’s notice.

They can afford to do that. Or perhaps more importantly, can’t afford to not have it.

Having a generator capable of replacing your grid power at hand is not a cheap endeavour. Most individuals, businesses and farms in Saskatchewan do not have them, because in recent decades, they have not needed them.

But they soon might. If you have a generator business, this could be an opportunity.

The irony is that many of those who have been crying the most for wholesale adoption of wind and solar may not be able to afford having a backup generator (and the fuel required for it), should the power go out because said wind and solar fail.

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And don’t think it can’t happen. Last November-December, the Alberta Electric System Operator put out five “grid alerts” in three weeks, warning people to not use high-power appliances like dishwasher, let the grid be in peril of rolling blackouts. The usual culprit was the frigid temperatures caused demand to peak and wind turbines to shut down, coinciding with the sun going down.

Let me be clear – Alberta has more coal, natural gas, and oil than God, because God gave all of his to Alberta. If ever Alberta, or Saskatchewan for that matter, should find itself in peril of rolling blackouts because it was too cold, the wind didn’t blow or the sun didn’t shine, it was because of sheer and utter incompetence at the top.

 

What we could end up with is a situation common in much of the Third World. Power is unreliable, so everyone who can afford it has a backup generator. And for those who don’t, too bad.

Look at what’s been happening in South Africa – their grid’s reliability has been collapsing, driven by corruption, and so, too, is their society. That country is falling apart as a result.

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Reliability trumps all

You often hear politicians and activists talk about “affordability, sustainability and reliability.” But the reality is reliability trumps all. The second the power goes out, the other two don’t matter very much, do they? A house’s power bill might be $200 a month, but if the power goes out, the owner will likely pay $50 a day for gas to keep a generator going, much more for a farm or business. And you don’t really care how sustainable that generator is, as long as it works.

This is why I’ve been writing so much about the reliability, or lack thereof, of wind and solar. The more I’ve seen how truly unreliable they are, the more alarmed I’ve become.

It’s too easy to pick on solar. It’s like picking on the fat kid at school. As the earth has yet to stop turning, the sun goes down every night, and solar power goes to zero. But I was amazed at how little solar power we get in November-December-January, three months where power is doubly important.

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But after 17 months of frequent monitoring, I’ve found that wind, too, frequently drops to next to zero, and does so pretty much every month. On May 12 Alberta’s wind dropped to 2 megawatts out of 3,618. On May 26, it fell to 3 megawatts. And this happens many times a year, for hours at a time. If you were counting nines, like above, you wouldn’t even get two. There are so many times that wind drops to next to nothing, it’s astonishing.

We’re throwing away what we know works – coal and natural gas – for something we know that absolutely doesn’t work – wind and solar.

We’re building the BHP Jansen mine, the biggest potash mine in the world. It needs 200 megawatts. What do we do if build a whole bunch of wind power, like Alberta’s 3,618 megawatts, and it drops to 2 megawatts? Sorry, boys shut her down. Good luck coming out tonight, or breathing when the ventilation loses power. The feds said we can’t use coal or gas anymore, so good luck.

Reliability of the electrical grid is everything. Without it, nothing else matters.

 

Brian Zinchuk is editor and owner of Pipeline Online. He can be reached at brian.zinchuk@pipelineonline.ca.

 

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Alberta’s wind power drops to 2 megawatts out of 3618 on Friday, the lowest level we’ve seen yet

For the fourth time in 16 days, Alberta’s wind power drops to near zero output