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Smart grid technology, which delivers electricity from suppliers to consumers using digital technology, helps utilities bring generating capacity online quickly when demand spikes

Peter Mccabe/The Globe and Mail

Summer, 2019. A massive blackout cuts power for two days across Western Canada. It started when lightning struck a transformer in Alberta, triggering a chain reaction. It's the 10th major blackout in North America in the past 50 years - but the fifth in a decade.

There are rolling brownouts in Ontario and businesses are being asked to turn down air conditioning because generating capacity can't handle the load. Across Canada, the only alternative energy available to utilities comes from a few large wind projects. The promise of feed-in tariffs - in which commercial and consumer energy users can install wind, solar and other alternative energy systems and sell power than don't use to their electrical utility - has been stalled by an aging electrical grid.

Or ...

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Summer, 2019: North America hasn't seen a blackout since 2012. Sophisticated communications systems collect data from throughout the electrical grid, allowing quick automatic reactions to incidents like fallen power lines. This smart grid technology, which delivers electricity from suppliers to consumers using digital technology, also helps utilities bring generating capacity on line quickly when demand spikes.

Smart meters in most commercial buildings and many homes support variable power rates depending on time of day. Smart air conditioners take a break when power demand spikes, and electric cars wait until 2 a.m. to charge.

The smart grid has helped utilities connect independent energy producers - even consumers with rooftop solar panels - to the grid and credit them for electricity they feed in to the system. That, coupled with a more efficient grid and encouraging consumers to shift power usage to off-peak hours, has made it possible to meet electricity needs without net new generating capacity.

The second scenario may be a bit utopian. We may well hope the first is pessimistic, but Canadians will probably never know how 2019 would look without the smart grid, as work is already under way on bringing the electrical system - largely unchanged since it was built a century ago - into the information age.

And about time, too. Alexander Graham Bell would not recognize today's telephone network, said Leonard Gross, vice-president of telecommunications engineering at Ontario's electrical utility Hydro One, at a seminar on the smart grid earlier this year, but "since Thomas Edison passed away, we've created a compact fluorescent light. Nothing else has happened."

Traditionally the grid was manual and analogue. "A fellow goes over to the wall, pulls down a lever and water starts to flow into the turbine and produce electricity," says Pierre Guimond, president and chief executive of the Canadian Electricity Association. In many cases utilities still don't know about power outages until customers phone to tell them.

For consumers, the most visible part of the smart grid will be smart meters that track not only how much electricity you use but when. That will permit higher rates for power used at peak periods and rewarding customers for switching usage to off-peak hours. Taking advantage of this could save consumers as 20 per cent on their power bills, predicts Duncan Stewart, director of research at consulting firm Deloitte Canada in Toronto.

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The impact on reliability is harder to forecast, Mr. Stewart says. While the grid is widely expected to become less reliable with age and increasing demands, the deterioration would be gradual. Smart-grid implementation - also gradual - will probably mean things won't get worse and might get a little better in coming years.

Increased efficiency and possibly the ability to exploit power from rooftop solar panels and windmills will help avoid capacity shortfalls, Mr. Stewart adds. "It's not like we'll probably be able to shut down every coal-fired plant in North America," he says, but at least there might be no need to build new ones.

And the impact on the infant electric car industry could be significant. It depends on the direction electric-car technology takes, Mr. Stewart says - if quick-charge batteries or battery-swapping stations catch on, electric cars could succeed without the smart grid, but "assuming that it looks like it does today, yes, you can't have electric cars without the smart grid."

Implementing the smart grid across North America will take about 20 years, Mr. Stewart says, but it is gaining momentum.

Ontario's Green Energy Act, announced in February, includes support for building a smart grid in Ontario. Besides Ontario, Mr. Guimond says, there is significant activity in Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia. Trials are under way in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and the Atlantic provinces will probably follow soon.

He adds two warnings, though. First, a digital electrical system will be more vulnerable to electronic sabotage, so security will be crucial. And second, all this won't come cheap. "Smart grid is new, expensive technology," Mr. Guimond says. "That will be reflected in the price of electricity." Time-of-day billing could save smart consumers money, but the cost of improving the grid might mean their bills are no lower in the end.

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