October 2, 2023 / By Current Affairs

Electricity Distribution in Canada

On September 20-21st, Electricity Canada’s Distribution Council met in Calgary Alberta for their annual face to face meeting. Distribution Council focuses on the issues surrounding bringing electricity at safe voltage directly to Canadian homes and businesses. As the last stop before electricity end-use, distribution utilities are responsible for connecting and maintaining electricity supply.

Current Affairs sat down with Electricity Canada’s Alex Kent, Director of Director of Distribution and Regulatory Affairs to learn more.

Hi Alex, thanks for joining us. Can you talk a little bit about the functions of a distribution utility and their importance in our net zero future?

The distribution utility owns and operates the wires that bring electricity to your home or business. That’s why they’re called in the industry the “last mile provider”.

Transmission lines take energy from generators to substations of the grid and the distribution grid takes energy from the substations to you. The specific role distribution has in the net zero future is that it supplies the non-emitting or zero emitting electricity that other industrial sectors or sectors at large can decarbonize by switching from a carbon power source to an electrical one. So, an electric vehicle is powered by electricity, and delivered by the distribution grid.

How will electric vehicle adoption affect the grid and its customers?

In the simplest sense, it's going to require the transmission of more energy across the distribution grid, which will, in turn, will be called upon to make up the energy that was being supplied to the transportation sector by gasoline and diesel.

Another interesting impact is that every electric vehicle is also a giant battery, that can consume, store and supply energy. In theory, an electric vehicle plugged into my home when the power goes out because there's a blizzard, could supply electricity to my home so that I never actually lose power. There's a potential emergency reliability angle there.

There is also a possibility for peak shaving. You have low demand for electricity in the day because people are at work or at school doing something else other than running high intensity electrical appliances. The demand for electricity goes up around 5:00 or so when people get home for the day and they turn on their oven, their stove and their microwave. You don’t want everyone in the neighbourhood’s electric vehicles pulling a maximum charge at this time.

Some Electricity Canada members are pursuing or have even deployed ultra-low overnight charging, so in effect you get home from work, plug in your EV, but it doesn't start drawing charge from the electricity grid until midnight, when everything else has been shut off because people have gone to bed. This prevents the system from being overloaded, and this is important to the end customer because it helps them save on their electricity bill.

The past year we produced two reports giving guidance about regulation and building (Back to Bonbright and Build Things Faster). What are the key things regulators and government need to do as we ramp up building grid capacity?

With Back to Bonbright, our core finding was that regulators in one way or another use Bonbright principles for economic regulation. And these are essentially the rules by which the public interest is weighed versus a utilities proposal. What we found was that even given net zero, the fundamental rules on how to assess that something still works, but you must do it. Considering the federal government is the driver of net zero and net zero has cost implications to customers, the federal government in one way or another should support net zero transitions by utilities and those making the investments.

In our Build Things Faster report, we asked, “how can we build things faster” because in the experience of our members it takes five to ten years to get anything really permitted in Canada. If we have eight years to permit our project and build transmission lines, for example, that's going to take us three or four years to build it. Well, that's already 12 years to do all this, and we have already missed the net zero 2035 legal mandate. You can throw more money at the problem; it's just there's not enough time.

What is the biggest upcoming challenge for the distribution system?

In the past, there was very predictable amounts of load that was drawn by users of the distribution system, because nothing really changed. Because we're doing fuel switching, it starts to change very quickly and in unexpected ways. Who's going to buy an EV?

Is it going to happen equally, nicely evenly, across a whole city?

Now, there's almost certainly going to be socioeconomic groups that buy EVs first and they may or may not be concentrated in certain portions of the distribution grid. These portions of the grid would then likely need to be upgraded to capture this increased demand. We don't know what's happening or when things are going to happen. We only have best guesses and need to hope the regulator will approve the necessary work.

What are the big priorities for Distribution Council in 2024?

A focus of discussion has been the impact of electric vehicles on the grid, regulatory innovation and what it means to be customer centric in your operations. Another major topic has been grid resiliency. Extreme weather events keep happening more frequently and they keep getting more extreme. We are looking into what distribution utilities can do to plan for weather that is not like what it was and is getting worse.