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A man walks by the city skyline on Jan. 15 as freezing temperatures as low as -38 C have hit the city of Calgary.Todd Korol/The Canadian Press

Alberta asked residents to conserve electricity for the third straight day on Monday as the province’s grid struggled to meet demand for power during a brutal cold snap, highlighting the political debate over the reliability of the system and the feasibility of reducing its carbon emissions to net zero.

The crisis started Saturday afternoon, when the Alberta Electric System Operator, which regulates the province’s grid, warned residents to reduce power consumption as a way of staving off rotating blackouts. Hours later, the provincial government triggered Alberta’s emergency alert system, urging residents through their cellphones and televisions to limit electricity use immediately. The AESO repeated the request on Sunday and Monday, without using the emergency alert system.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is in the midst of a bitter battle with the federal government over the future of the province’s electrical grid. The three-day supply crunch, coupled with the threat of outages, emphasized the system’s fragility.

Ms. Smith argues that the federal government’s draft clean electricity regulations, which aim to create an electrical grid that produces net-zero carbon emissions by 2035, will cause blackouts and price spikes, because they would limit Alberta’s ability to generate power from natural gas. Ottawa has rejected this interpretation, saying fossil fuel plants with carbon capture technology will be permitted, and those without will be allowed to generate electricity during emergencies and at times of peak demand.

“The thought of rolling brownouts, and some sort of a triage for our electrical system, is not something we want to be in for a minute, let alone hours at a time,” Nathan Neudorf, Alberta’s Utilities and Affordability Minister, said in an interview Monday.

Mr. Neudorf called the extended electricity shortfall a “perfect storm.” He said four natural-gas-fired power plants had failed over the weekend because of mechanical and cold-weather issues. Renewable sources of power did little to ease pressure on Saturday and Sunday, because there was a shortage of wind and the sun set before peak demand hours.

Power generated from renewables provided relief Monday morning, but by the afternoon the AESO was predicting the supply cushion would deflate by the evening, indicating another likely power crunch.

Alberta’s cold snap, which began in the middle of last week, has plunged the province into a bitter deep freeze, including a four-day streak of record lows in Edmonton. The province’s power grid hit its highest ever demand, at 12,384 megawatts, on Jan. 11, two days prior to the emergency alert. Strong wind-power generation and fewer unplanned outages at natural gas facilities buoyed the system that day, according to Leif Sollid, a spokesperson for the AESO.

But, by 3:42 p.m. on Saturday, when the AESO issued its grid alert, it had exhausted available resources and was using backup reserves to meet demand. As conditions continued to deteriorate, the regulator became concerned it was at risk of exhausting its reserves, Mr. Sollid said. If that had happened, rotating blackouts would have followed.

Three hours later, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency issued the emergency alert. Within minutes, demand had dropped by 200 megawatts, eliminating the risk of outages, he said. It marked the first time Alberta has used its emergency broadcast system to urge consumers to curtail their power use.

The AESO also exercised voluntary agreements with large industrial customers to reduce stress on the system, Mr. Sollid said, though he would not provide specific information about which companies were involved or the action they took.

Alberta’s problems were compounded by the fact that the cold was, at the same time, assaulting much of Western Canada and the northwest United States. This severely constricted the province’s ability to import electricity, Mr. Neudorf said. Idaho, for example, pulled much of the surplus power from Montana that Alberta had been relying on last week.

The province did import electricity from British Columbia and Saskatchewan, where Premier Scott Moe used the opportunity to slam Ottawa. “That power will be coming from natural gas and coal-fired plants, the ones the Trudeau government is telling us to shut down (which we won’t),” he said on social media. Ms. Smith reposted his comments.

Kaitlin Power, a spokesperson for federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault, said in a statement that the coming clean energy regulations “would never put the province in a situation where they did not have reliable electricity,” and that Ottawa does not plan to shutter power plants that rely on fossil fuels. “We have proposed provisions so that fossil fuel burning plants can run without carbon capture technologies during peak usage or in situations of emergency,” she noted.

Alberta’s power market is unique in Canada, in that it relies on the private sector to bear the risks and responsibilities of adding new capacity. Unlike in other provinces, there is no centrally administered planning mechanism.

The private system the province uses is called an energy-only market, in which companies are driven mainly by the revenue they make from market volatility, or when the price of power spikes.

In 2016, the AESO recommended that Alberta’s former New Democratic Party government make the switch to a capacity market, a system in which power companies guarantee through contracts that they will provide enough electricity for the grid. The province had been working on the change for two years when Albertans elected the United Conservative Party, which ripped up the plans, saying they weren’t necessary.

The UCP government, under Ms. Smith, believes it can green the grid by 2050. Provincial regulators are reviewing Alberta’s grid and power market as it grapples with this net-zero goal. They have been tasked with developing incentives and potential legislative changes to help improve grid reliability, and figuring out how nuclear, hydrogen, energy storage and hydroelectricity can help stabilize supply.

The AESO is also undertaking what it calls the Market Pathways Initiative, which will lay the groundwork for what Alberta’s future power market will look like. On top of that, the provincial government ordered the Alberta Utilities Commission to review various issues, including how electricity provided by wind and solar ties into the broader system. The province paused all approvals for renewable power projects until the end of February, while that review continues.

Mr. Neudorf said the pressure faced by Alberta’s grid underscores the importance of those reviews.

“I think it has shown that we do have a lot more work to do,” he said.

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