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Earl Diamond shows off Hydro-Quebec's battery, which is used for backup power in his home in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que., on Jan. 24.Evan Buhler/The Globe and Mail

Electric utilities around North America are stepping up efforts to control vegetation and bury power lines to better secure their grids as they deal with more violent and unpredictable storms brought on by climate change. But Hydro-Québec is among those testing another way to keep the lights on for its customers: home batteries.

The Montreal-based utility, Canada’s biggest producer of hydroelectricity, is running a pilot project involving about 20 residential clients living in seven suburbs on Montreal’s West Island. It is equipping their homes with mini fridge-sized battery stacks to test how they perform when the electricity cuts out and in periods where demand is at its peak.

The trial began at the end of 2022 and will last three years.

“We want to give customers the opportunity to build their own resiliency” during power outages, which will continue as weather becomes more extreme, Hydro-Québec’s chief operating and infrastructure officer, Claudine Bouchard, told a legislative committee recently.

The utility will offer a suite of products to customers who want to be prepared for service interruptions that will include home batteries as well as thermal accumulators, Ms. Bouchard said. The first of these are expected to be available sometime this year.

It also plans to test a much bigger neighbourhood version – mobile emergency hubs with generators and charging stations that can be moved from one community to another during outages.

The moves underscore Hydro-Québec chief executive Michael Sabia’s resolve to improve the energy giant’s service and reverse a perception that its aging network has become increasingly unreliable, something other utility CEOs are also dealing with.

Giving clients with tools such as home batteries also empowers them, building a backstop that could ease pressure on the utility by reducing demand on the electrical system during critical times.

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Diamond said the backup battery was installed a year ago and was put to the test during southern Quebec’s ice storm last April. The battery provided 40 hours of backup power as Hydro-Quebec crew’s worked to restore power for six days to Diamond’s home.Evan Buhler/The Globe and Mail

Extreme weather hitting Quebec in recent years is testing Hydro-Québec’s grid like never before – causing power outages that are more frequent and longer-lasting and posing a major threat to its infrastructure and operations.

The utility spent $77-million last year alone to restore power after several major storms and persistent forest fires, most notably a wave of freezing rain in April that was the worst such event since the 1998 ice storm.

Aging infrastructure is compounding the problem.

“The quality of service [we’re offering] has deteriorated over roughly 10 years,” Mr. Sabia said earlier this month as the utility reported a profit of $3.3-billion for 2023. “It has to improve.”

The utility has pledged to cut the number of power outages by 35 per cent over the next seven to 10 years. It will invest on average between $4-billion and $5-billion a year to achieve that goal. The money will go to deploying new distribution equipment, stepping up vegetation control, as well as adopting more innovative practices like lightly burying power lines in places where it makes sense to do so.

Boosting customer resiliency is another key element of the plan.

Earl Diamond, a retired aerospace engineer, is among the first people to test Hydro-Québec’s home battery system. He says outages have increased in frequency in his area and while some of his neighbours have opted for propane and gas generators, he gravitated immediately to a more renewable and technologically advanced solution.

The system has five components in all, including a processing unit and a black box on wheels that contains a stack of three batteries. The energy output is modest: 10 kilowatt-hours (kwh), enough to power the lights, internet and a select number of appliances such as the fridge and freezer. During last year’s multiday outage around Easter, the setup provided 40 consecutive hours of backup support before running out.

Mr. Diamond says it’s been programmed so that during peak periods of power consumption during non-outages, for example early morning on a cold day, the system will automatically draw electricity from his home battery – if the battery has juice – in order to pull less from the grid. He says that saves him money and worry.

“It’s passive management, which is pretty cool really,” Mr. Diamond said, explaining that he chose which appliances to connect to the system. “In retrospect, I would have put on a couple of plugs in the kitchen to run a kettle. And I would have put on the garage door openers. Only because it’s a pain in the butt when the doors are closed and your car’s inside and now you have to crawl around the car to release it manually.”

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Earl Diamond points out 'necessary' appliances and rooms connected to a separate circuit breaker panel for Hydro-Quebec’s battery used for backup power.Evan Buhler/The Globe and Mail

It’s not a new idea.

Vermont’s Green Mountain Power is going big on home batteries. The utility unveiled a new strategy this past October called the Zero Outages Initiative, by which it plans to expand its existing home-battery program and spend US$30-million to equip an additional 1,600 homes with the system in 2025 and 2026. The move targets rural clients in particular.

Nova Scotia Power, privately owned by energy and services company Emera, is at the tail end of a three-year pilot program on home batteries in which 125 customers took part. Under an agreement they signed with the utility, those clients will continue to use the batteries – either a $3,000 Tesla Powerwall 2 battery or a $4,200 Sunverge Infinity battery – for another seven years.

Most have opted to finance the battery and will own it at the end of the period, utility spokesperson Jacqueline Foster said.

“This is really us saying ‘What solutions could we bring to the energy mix beyond deploying more power lines and infrastructure,’ ” said Jean-Pierre Croteau, Hydro-Québec’s head of residential and commercial vision.

“We’re really at the beginning of this wave” in what are called non-wire alternatives, he said. “It’s starting to get interesting.”

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