January 8, 2024 / By Current Affairs

What better time to start thinking about the future than bright and early into the new year?

Current Affairs sits down with Dan Gent, Director of Transmission and Reliability for a weather recap.

Hi Dan, thank you for joining us. Extreme weather was a huge topic in 2023 for Electricity Canada members. Wildfires in general wiped out over 3000 hydro poles, we’ve had tornados and hurricanes, ice storms in the middle of April, it’s been hot, it’s been cold, it’s been rainy, and it’s been dry… What’s the forecast for 2024?

I’ve heard a lot about wildfires, last year, and honestly, we should expect wildfires again this year, hopefully not as much as 18 million hectares burning, which was a Canadian record. Thousands of poles destroyed and some of those fires caused direct blackouts in major urban centres. Now as for the rest, I’m no meteorologist, but I believe we can expect 2024 to be another rocky year. El Nino, the warmer and dryer air phenomenon we are experiencing right now, is not expected to end until February and some reports have said March. And with El Nino, comes a warmer remainder of the year, and with heat the effects of it, from droughts to wildfires and because heat, stress on the electricity grid.

Because of El Nino, I believe we should expect to see even more hurricanes in the Atlantic, who have seen already their fair share in the last few years.

How do our members prepare for this kind of weather every year? And if something is broken, how do we fix it?

Three words. Plan, plan and, plan. Companies in our industry must plan for the worst. Utilities develop predictive analysis on weather patterns that overlay the grid to identify weak spots and shore them up before the storm arrives. That way, we can analyze what will get hit and potentially how hard and look into bringing in reinforcements like mutual assistance if necessary.

There is a need to ensure we have replacement parts. Obsolescence is not an option. Electricity Canada has discussed this extensively regarding the final phase-out of pentachlorophenol-treated utility poles. We need to be creative and find solutions for replacing damaged and broken equipment when the supply chain is not there for us. We also need to ensure we have the skills and people in place to solve the challenges we will face today and tomorrow.

What do we need changed at a regulatory level to make this easier?

This is a great question. Provincial regulators are for the most part “economic regulators”. They want to see affordable rates and a reliable grid which requires a lot of reporting from utilities to make decisions.

It would be wonderful if regulators could see what else can they do to enable stronger reliability and improved resiliency for electricity providers. Can they create a research and development program for wildfire mitigation techniques, like they have in Australia?

Maybe regulators can look at new utility programs geared towards improving reliability and create a pilot project in partnership with the utilities. We can’t be doing the same things anymore. Climate change is here to stay. All stakeholders in hour industry need to spin things around and address our problems differently.

In 1998, an ice storm wiped parts of Quebec and parts of Ontario for over a week. Could this happen today and are we ready for it?

Oh yes, 1998 brings back memories. We had a State of Emergency, the military was called in, ice and fallen trees crushed transmission towers. Depending on where you lived you may not have received power back for 6 weeks or more. It was a challenging time for many people.

To answer your question, never say never.

I believe the grid is stronger now with newer standards in place. Transmission towers can now withstand even more weight, we have newer tools and technologies. There are many lessons we learned from the 1998 ice storm. I don’t think it can never happen again, in the age of ever persistent storms however, I do think we are better prepared and more resilient now then ever before.