Environment

Powering Vancouver Island is getting harder with climate change

Cables from the mainland were damaged by the heat this summer and thousands went without power during this week’s storm. How can the Island keep the lights on?

By Tim Ford
October 27, 2021
Environment

Powering Vancouver Island is getting harder with climate change

Cables from the mainland were damaged by the heat this summer and thousands went without power during this week’s storm. How can the Island keep the lights on?

By Tim Ford
Oct 27, 2021
The Island Generation plant in Campbell River. Photo: Capital Power
Environment

Powering Vancouver Island is getting harder with climate change

Cables from the mainland were damaged by the heat this summer and thousands went without power during this week’s storm. How can the Island keep the lights on?

By Tim Ford
October 27, 2021
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Powering Vancouver Island is getting harder with climate change
The Island Generation plant in Campbell River. Photo: Capital Power

British Columbia is still tallying the cost from the blisteringly hot summer of 2021, while harsh winter weather is already setting in.

A record-setting storm caused power outages for more than 30,000 BC Hydro customers on Vancouver Island since Sunday. That storm had the lowest pressure ever recorded in the northeastern Pacific Ocean, in line with the kinds of intensifying effects scientists expect for this part of the world as the climate is disrupted.

The effects of climate change were similarly felt this summer, with BC Hydro only just recovering from those events even as they work to respond to these recent ones. The wildfire season that just ended, reckoned to be the third-worst in the province’s history, gutted the village of Lytton. Hundreds perished under a punishing heat dome. On Vancouver Island, a vital power cable connecting to the mainland grid bulged and burst.

BC Hydro first identified the issue in July, saying that a bulge and a mineral oil leak were detected above the high-tide mark on one of the submarine cables running from the Sunshine Coast to the Island. Bulging was also reported on two other cables. 

At the time, the utility didn’t know what caused the problem—but Ted Olynyk, BC Hydro’s community relations manager for the Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island, said it’s a first for the province, and that BC Hydro strongly suspects the extreme heat played a role.

“The heat dome was an unprecedented event in our part of the world,” he said. “It's something that we have to accept and deal with and confront and prepare for.”

An electricity ‘insurance policy’ for Vancouver Island

Repairs are still ongoing, and upgrading the cables to shield them from heat in the future could take years. But while the damage was being assessed, power stations on Vancouver Island were called on to pick up the slack from the reduced mainland connection.

Held up against the province’s entire power grid, the Island is a minor contributor. Six BC Hydro-owned stations generate roughly 471 Megawatts (MW) of power; approximately 4% of BC Hydro’s total capacity.

On an as-needed basis, 21 privately owned stations also contribute to the grid through partnerships with BC Hydro. Collectively, these partner stations effectively double the Island’s domestic output, with a maximum capacity of 550 MW. Half of that comes from a single station: the 275 MW Campbell River natural gas-fired plant owned and operated by Capital Power, a company based in Alberta.

The station generally sits idle, while Capital Power is contracted to maintain it and be ready in the event of an emergency. 

However, just such an emergency occurred this summer, and Capital Power’s president and CEO, Brian Vaasjo, says that this proves the importance of the station’s contract.

“We basically ran from early July through just recently,” he said. “The capacity wasn't available, so [BC Hydro] needed some backup. We've been operating pretty much as an insurance policy for the last handful of years.”

Capital Power says their Campbell River plant has also been online when hydro dams had lessened capacity during droughts in 2019. According to the Alberta company, they’ve been needed to varying degrees for every year of their contract.

Despite the situation that transpired this summer, however, the plant’s future has been thrown into doubt, Vaasjo said.

“BC Hydro launched a draft IRP [Integrated Resource Plan] in September,” he said. “It said they didn't really see a need any longer for our facility, which kind of surprised us given that they'd just been running it.”

The draft IRP is expected to be finalized in December. In it, BC Hydro identifies the Campbell River Station as one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the system, producing about 10,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.

“There is no basis, at this time, to assume that the electricity purchase agreement with this facility will be renewed,” the draft IRP reads.

Olynyk says that negotiations are ongoing. BC Hydro will be weighing such factors as costs, greenhouse gas targets, and meeting peak demand.

“When electricity purchase agreements come up, of course they'll be reviewed. They're not forever agreements,” he said. 

“The bottom line is, what's in the best interest of ratepayers? We're meeting the greenhouse gas targets, and trying to keep rates as low as possible, and keeping the lights on in the province.”

Keeping the lights on for Vancouver Island this summer was possible, at least in part, thanks to the Campbell River plant.

Supply and demand

The summer saw record-breaking summer power usage on June 28, 2021: a peak demand of 8,568 MW as air conditioners flipped on across the province to counteract the heat. Olynyk estimates that Vancouver Island saw between 1,800 to 2,000 MW peak usage.

Weighing that against the Island’s domestic capacity of just over 1,000 MW, the Campbell River facility’s 275 MW capacity could sometimes be the difference between power and blackout.

However, some experts say the real issue for Island power is transmission, not generation, especially in the context of climate change.

Andrew Rowe, a professor of engineering at the University of Victoria who specializes in energy systems, said that Vancouver Island has a limited capacity for power stations.

“There's options around Vancouver Island for local generation. But there's so many constraints now around building anything, relying on the grid to move energy around is going to become more and more important.”

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When it comes to moving power around the province, one of the key limitations is heat. Thermal constraints can limit power line capacity, particularly during summer months, and the placement of lines near vegetation can also be a fire hazard. These hazards are already becoming evident in the US, where California-based Pacific Gas & Electric’s above-ground power lines have been found to have caused more than 1,500 wildfires in six years.

Heat can also affect power station capacity, pushing limitations on how much energy is available during peak times like this summer’s heat dome.

“Thermal issues have caused grids to go down in the past with blackouts,” Rowe said. “The lines that run from the mainland to the Island are known to have thermal limits. As we get more hot now, it's going to have an impact. It's going to limit what the power flow can be through those lines.”

BC Hydro is still investigating the damage to those lines, but Olynyk said with signs pointing to high temperatures, the company is undertaking work to protect them against future climate change-induced extreme heat events.

The Integrated Resource Plan calls for a series of upgrades to transmission infrastructure in the South Coast region, which includes Vancouver Island, to achieve 550 MW capacity by 2033. This would further increase to 700 MW capacity by 2039.

Between existing domestic sources and transmission lines, BC Hydro anticipates power surpluses until 2033, even counting the end of the Campbell River Capital Power contract in 2023.

However, Olynyk says that a significant portion of these estimates has hinged on the loss of large industrial customers on the Island, including some paper mills like the one at Elk Falls.

“We lost Elk Falls and a few other large customers,” he says. “That means load on Vancouver Island has gone down. We project it to be pretty static over the next number of years.”

Demand is anticipated to grow slowly over time as transportation is electrified and the population grows. Winter storms and summer heatwaves, meanwhile, will continue to strain the grid at unpredictable intervals.

‘The capacity isn’t going to be there’

Vaasjo believes that with those extreme weather changes already occurring, his company’s Campbell River facility should be kept on contract for at least a while longer.

“Up until this IRP, we were pretty confident that this facility would be needed for 15 years or more,” he said. 

“If the capacity is there, then they don't need it. But I guess our point is, without people's lights going out, the capacity isn't going to be there.”

It’s a complex issue, according to Rowe, because provincewide, BC actually has a lot of capacity for growth when it comes to power and the vast majority of its sources are already renewables.

For Vancouver Island, regardless of the Campbell River plant, existing hydro facilities could also be in for an uphill battle as water resources may become scarcer with climate change.

This, again, is why Rowe stresses the need for better transmission infrastructure.

“The energy demands aren't that big, really,” he says. “It's actually more about the dynamics and the capacity requirements.”

This even applies to small private projects like solar panels. Rowe says that these projects are becoming more attractive in the free market, but without a proper network to transmit the power across communities, the province won’t see the full benefit.

“We'll need to have good connections,” he says. “We'll need to be making sure we have the ability to maneuver and ship power from various locations... This whole question around supply and demand—it only works as long as you've got the connections in between right. Having a strong and reliable network is going to grow in importance.”

BC Hydro’s repairs to the cables connecting Vancouver Island to the network will be completed this month.

With more heatwaves predicted for the future, they’ll without a doubt face new challenges before long.


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