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The Canadian Wildfires Ominously Messed Up a Clean Energy Power Line

New England had to burn oil when hydropower was briefly cut off up north.

A hydroelectric dam.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The Quebec forest fires that have recently contributed to some of the worst smoke days in American history are also wreaking minor havoc on the electric grid.

Observers of electricity markets were puzzled Wednesday evening when grid operator ISO-New England announced that “due to an unanticipated transmission outage and higher-than-forecast consumer demand,” the New England grid would be calling on reserves “to balance the regional power system.” Demand that day did not seem particularly or unexpectedly high, nor were there any obvious supply issues in New England, so why was ISO-NE having trouble? More illumination came Thursday, when it specified there was a transmission issue with its imported power.

A spokesperson for Hydro-Québec, the French Canadian utility, told me that its Phase-2 power line, which connects the vast amounts of hydropower generated in northeastern Canada to a substation over 900 miles away in Boston, went down briefly yesterday due to forest fires in the James Bay region. “Heat and smoke can trigger automated system protection mechanisms, which will essentially shut down the powerline in order to protect it,” the spokesperson said. These are many of the same fires that have recently blanketed the eastern and midwestern United States in smoke.

Imported hydropower from Quebec plays a crucial role in New England’s grid, responsible for over 11% of the region’s total electric use in 2022. New York is also looking to expand its use of imported hydropower, with a new transmission line that will run from the Canadian border to New York City and is currently under construction.

Quebec itself essentially powers its entire grid with its massive hydropower resources, making it one of the least carbon intensive grids in the industrialized world.

Some of that excess hydropower has been exported to New England for decades, and it has become more and more attractive south of the border as New England and New York seek to decarbonize.

The actual scale of the disruption in power delivery turned out to be well within ISO-NE’s capabilities to manage. The grid operator didn’t ask consumers to use less power, as Texas did in the past few weeks when its grid was beset by high temperatures and record consumer demand, or as New York and California have done on hot days. But in addition to pulling in more imports from New York state, ISO-NE also had to burn oil for electricity, which New England sometimes does when its natural gas supply runs short, especially in the winter when gas is used for heat.

While the system in both Quebec and New England survived the transmission hiccup — a Hydro-Québec spokesperson made sure to note that “our bulk transmission infrastructure has not suffered any damage as a result of the forest fires” — it does underscore the threat that even non-carbon-emitting electricity generation faces from the effects of climate change. In addition to briefly shutting off this transmission line, forest fires have also reduced solar generation due to blocking out the sun.

On the other hand, as Joe LaRusso of the Acadia Center, a New England clean energy group, pointed out to me, transmission is also what saved the day when Quebec’s imports were shut off, as imports from New York picked up the slack. “It serves as a demonstration not that transmission is a weak link, but that it’s the principle means of enabling balancing authorities like ISO-NE and NYISO to rely on one another to make up for variations in capacity.” That’s as true of “unplanned generator and transmission outages” as was the case in Quebec, as it is for more predictable fluctuations in solar and wind power.

“While forest fires are not a new phenomenon, the intensity and increased frequency of these events in North America are the result of climate change,” the Hydro-Québec spokesperson said. “The amplitude of this event should serve as a clear reminder that we need to accelerate every effort towards transitioning away from the burning of fossil fuels for electricity generation.”


Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine. Read More

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