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The managers of Ontario's electricity grid forecast how much power is going to be used every five minutes, 24 hours a dayFred Lum

Innovation and leading-edge technology are being called upon to modernize Ontario's aging electricity grid

Building a 21st-century electricity grid to serve the most populated part of Canada is such a momentous task that even the experts sometimes get frustrated.

"We're taking some important steps forward, but I would think we need to move more swiftly," says Bob Oliver, Executive Director of Pollution Probe, one of Canada's most longstanding environmental watchdog and research groups. "We've had endless summits on smart grid technology, but we should actually get to doing more."

Upgrading the aging grid in central Canada is a multidimensional task. True, parts of the grid need to be replaced; the need to do so has been demonstrated by events ranging from the 2003 blackout to last winter's ice storm that shut down power for hundreds of thousands of people in the Greater Toronto Area.

While Oliver's impatience is perhaps understandable, slowly but surely it is being addressed. It's happening in research centres such as GE's Grid IQ™ Global Innovation Centre in Markham, opened in 2012, and it's happening along the transmission lines.

It's one aspect of a major push to modernize and strengthen electricity distribution. "We are retooling the major part of the backbone of the grid," says Darren Finkbeiner, Manager of Corporate Planning for the Independent Electricity System Operator, the arms-length provincial agency that is in charge of making sure the wires work.

The challenge is that it's more than a matter of simply buying new equipment and installing it — though that's part of the job.

The first step has been more of a "hardening" of the existing electrical system than a wholesale rebuilding, Finkbeiner says. "To cope with floods, we've been putting in berms and elevating control panels off the floor. These sorts of things are going on across the country." Ontario has also completed large projects such as the building of a new transmission line from the Bruce nuclear station to Milton, west of Toronto, and a new direct current tie line between Ontario and Quebec.

In addition to improving its physical strength, the grid now has to be bolstered against cyber attacks, too. "Every day somebody is trying to send in a Trojan horse or a worm or whatever the name of the latest invasive computer technology is," Finkbeiner says.

At the same time as it's being hardened and protected from hackers, the grid is being made smarter. Ontario has spent more than $3-billion since 2003 on smart grid technology — $1-billion for smart meters in homes and businesses and $2-billion on the infrastructure to make the grid more responsive and nimble.

Some critics deride smart meters as a costly waste, but they're part of an overall modernization of the grid that makes the electricity system more responsive to minute-by-minute demands. "In the past you'd have a person in the control room with a pen and paper and a computer," Finkbeiner says. But today's sophisticated grid analytics can literally tell operators how to squeeze more electricity out of existing wires. They do this by reporting on everything from wind speed and temperature, to the type of lighting in an area, to the amount of light being used at a given moment. Analytics can even calculate whether a solid or a braided wire is delivering the electricity, so the operators can fine-tune the load.

Having a precise idea of demand is important to make best use of the growing amounts of wind and solar energy going directly into the grid. "We forecast how much power is going to be used every five minutes, and this happens 24 hours a day," Finkbeiner says.

"In about two minutes I will issue a dispatch instruction to every generator in this province, telling them either to stay where they are in production [of electricity] or increase it, based on what they're capable of doing, based on the prices they want to be paid and based on the capacity of the transmission system across the province. And five minutes later, we'll do it again."

In the earlier days of renewable energy, windmills and solar panels would generate excess electricity whether or not it was needed or being used. When big surpluses were anticipated, operators might order one or more of Ontario's three nuclear plants to shut down production; that's costly, because it takes several days to restart them. That's changing because of the new, smarter grid, which can tell wind and solar sites to stop and restart within minutes.

GE's 100,000-square-foot Markham centre incorporates onsite research and test labs where GE engineers can simulate difficult challenges to energy production and transmission, such as bad weather and heavy peak demand, as well as new opportunities for integrating renewable sources into grids.

The building includes a technical training centre for both onsite and distance learning for GE employees, partners and customers. Industries can learn about new energy innovations, and half of the centre is devoted to production space.

Research to make the grid even smarter continues at the GE Centre and projects such as the Smart Grid Research and Innovation Centre in Waterloo, the Urban Energy Centre at Toronto's Ryerson University and the ePower Centre at Queen's University in Kingston.

Renewing the grid may not prevent nasty ice storms, but it can help make the system react and respond more reliably — and more smartly.

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This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department, in consultation with GE. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.