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An ice fog hangs over steaming neighbourhoods in Calgary on Jan. 13. Weather warnings cover much of Canada this weekend, from arctic air flowing along British Columbia's coast to extreme cold in the Prairies and storms moving through southern Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Extreme weather conditions tested Alberta’s power grid this weekend, prompting an unprecedented emergency alert on cellphones, warning consumers to conserve electricity to avoid potential blackouts.

At dinnertime on Saturday, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency issued an urgent, provincial-wide alert, saying that high demand placed the grid at a “high risk” of rotating power outages. It urged Albertans to limit their electricity use by turning off lights, minimizing the use of space heaters and delaying charging electric vehicles. Albertans responded, within minutes, by reducing demand, averting power outages – at least for now.

The alert comes as Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is battling Ottawa over federal draft clean electricity regulations, and the province mandated a freeze last year on new renewable projects.

A combination of factors sparked the weekend alert: Two of the province’s natural gas plants were offline –one for maintenance, the other had reduced output owing to weather-related issues. Solar power was strong in the day, but tapered off as the sun set, and there was little wind. And though Alberta can import electricity from other provinces, initially this was unavailable because both Saskatchewan and B.C. were facing cold snaps and high demand of their own.

There have been no rotating outages in 11 years, said Leif Sollid, spokesperson for the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO). However, on Saturday, “we were at high risk of having to take that very last resort measure because we were close to exhausting all of our backup reserves.”

If the operator had been unable to keep the system in balance, with supply matching demand, Mr. Sollid said, AESO would have had to direct distribution facility owners across the province to impose simultaneous, 30-minute rotating outages.

That was averted because of the “phenomenal” response from Albertans. “Within seconds, we saw 100 megawatts of demand fall off the system. Within a few minutes, we had 200 megawatts fall off. So that was enough to get us over that that peak and avoid having to go to rotating outages – it made the difference,” he said in an interview Sunday.

Alberta’s energy market stands apart from the other provinces in that the private sector oversees new capacity, which is mainly driven by revenues.

The province has issued notices in the past for other weather-related events such as tornadoes, but this was the first time that an alert was issued asking people to reduce energy consumption, Mr. Sollid said.

“Within seconds, we could see in real time in our control room the demand just drop and it was phenomenal. A huge shout-out to Albertans for doing their part.”

On Thursday of last week, power demand in Alberta hit an all-time high, registering the single largest one-hour demand period in the province’s history. “We were able to manage that in large part because of the very strong wind,” Mr. Sollid said.

On Friday, however, with demand still high, a lack of wind and constrained imports prompted a grid alert – an alert that means the power system is under stress. A grid alert is posted on the AESO’s website and tweeted.

On Saturday, AESO projected that the Alberta grid would face a 100 to 200 megawatt shortfall of electricity during peak hours. “We were close to exhausting our backup reserves,” he said.

By Saturday evening, Alberta was able to import some electricity from Saskatchewan and B.C., Mr. Sollid said.

On Sunday, AESO issued another grid alert. It asked Albertans again to conserve electricity during the peak hours of 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Its suggestions included delaying the use of dryers and dishwashers, cooking with a microwave instead of stove, and using a laptop instead of desktop computer.

Temperatures are expected to moderate early this week – but extreme cold-weather conditions could well return, said Thomas Anderson, an Edmonton-based metererologist at Environment Canada.

“It’s still January. There’s always that chance that we could find ourselves with cold temperatures around this level again. We’re not out of the hard winter by any stretch,” said Mr. Anderson – who switched off all unneccessary lights in his own house after receiving Saturday’s alert.

On Friday, Ms. Smith took to the social-media platform X, formerly Twitter, to inform Albertans that AESO had issued a grid alert for the province. Ms. Smith also cast doubt on the dependability of renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar.

“Right now, wind is generating almost no power,” the Premier tweeted. “When renewables are unreliable as they are now, natural gas plants must increase capacity to keep Albertans warm and safe.”

University of Alberta law and economics professor Andrew Leach says the imbalance of supply and demand that led to the risk of rolling blackouts stemmed from a confluence of events, including the outage at a gas plant and scant power imports from other provinces.

Prof. Leach says those events were unexpected – but a lack of solar and wind generation was foreseeable.

“Nobody was expecting it to be sunny in Alberta at 7 p.m. on the 13th of January,” he says. “If you expect to be able to turn on the wind and the sun, you’re kidding yourself.”

Prof. Leach says his own drive through the streets of Edmonton showed that holiday decorations were still illuminated, and lights were on in the Alberta Legislature.

“There were very obvious signs that we hadn’t done everything we could,” he says.

Prof. Leach said that the argument in favour of adding renewables to the supply is that they are a cheap source of electricity that can reduce reliance on more expensive gas production and also cut emissions.

Minister of Affordability and Utilities Nathan Neudorf said on Sunday the province is continuing to call on citizens and businesses to reduce consumption where they can.

The extreme weather illustrates why Alberta needs to ensure it has reliability built into the system, Mr. Neudorf says.

“We ask them to stay in their lane,” he says of the federal government.

The office of federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault did not respond to a request for comment.

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