Better linking Canada’s grid – by Nicholas Fedorkiw (Prince George Citizen – January 7, 2014)

One theme I have written about before is the need for more interprovincial trade in electricity. The benefits of free trade in general are embraced by most these days. However, for a variety of reasons, electricity is the one sector of the economy that has least benefited from free trade, even within Canada.

Hopefully that’s about to change. There is a movement afoot in central Canada to use Manitoba’s clean hydro power to supply industrial mining and oil and gas development in northern Ontario, Saskatchewan, and even Alberta. There are some definite lessons for B.C. here, as well as the whole country.

Like B.C., Manitoba is powered by large scale hydroelectric power. Also, like B.C., they are surrounded by areas that need a lot of electricity to fuel their economy. Ontario’s “Ring of Fire”; an area of proposed mining development is probably most significant. Not only do mines consume a lot of electricity, but the mines of northern Ontario are actually closer to the power generation centres of Manitoba than of Ontario’s which are focused in southern Ontario.

Looking west, the oil and gas growth in Alberta and Saskatchewan is another target market for Manitoba’s power. In this case, its the carbon free nature of Manitoba’s power that has value in the otherwise carbon intensive economies of these western provinces.

So whats the holdup? There are two issues, one commercial and one physical. Commercially, there is no real market framework for private sector companies (mines, refineries, etc) to trade electricity between provinces. Solving this would require provinces to open up their electricity markets to competition; something most, especially B.C., have been reluctant to do. The physical issue holding up this kind of development is that there is a scarcity of physical transmission lines connecting provinces in Canada. This is not an easy issue to solve as transmission infrastructure takes years of planning in the most straightforward of cases.

Here in B.C. we face largely the same opportunities and challenges that Manitoba does. We have a lot of clean power with a captive customer right next door in the oil sands. But like Manitoba, we have no significant way to trade electricity with Alberta. Deep cooperation between Alberta and B.C. would be required to overcome this problem. But more likely might be some involvement from the federal government.

One of the strongest proponents for exporting Manitoba’s power is Steven Fletcher, the M.P. from Manitoba. This isn’t surprising as its the federal government which should be most interested in promoting any kind of free trade between provinces. And the federal government has shown a willingness to get involved in these areas, even providing funding in some cases.

There are lots of thorny energy issues between Alberta and B.C. right now and no one is probably more keen to see them resolved than the federal government. I wonder if they have looked at facilitating trade in electricity as part of the solution? We need an equivalent of Steven Fletcher to champion this issue in B.C. Hopefully someone will take up the cause.

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