Sign In or Create an Account.

By continuing, you agree to the Terms of Service and acknowledge our Privacy Policy

Economy

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.”

Blue
Matthew Zeitlin profile image

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.

Politics

Why Republicans Grilled the Energy Secretary About UFOs

You have to get creative when you allege a “war on energy” during an oil boom.

Jennifer Granholm and UFOs.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

When Donald Trump met with a group of oil executives at Mar-a-Lago last month, his message was somewhere between “refreshingly blunt” and “blatant shakedown.” Attendees spilled to The Washington Post that Trump told the executives they should raise a billion dollars for his campaign so he could make them even richer by reducing their taxes and removing regulations on their industry.

One can’t help but wonder if any of them thought to themselves that as appealing as that kind of deal might be, there’s no reason for them to be desperate. After all, the Biden years have actually been quite good for the fossil fuel industry.

Keep reading...Show less
Blue
Politics

Biden’s Long Game on Climate

The president isn’t trying to cut emissions as fast possible. He’s doing something else.

President Biden playing chess.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Here’s the problem with President Joe Biden’s climate policy: From a certain point of view, it makes no sense.

Take his electricity policy. At the top level, Biden has committed to eliminating greenhouse-gas pollution from the power sector by 2035. He wants to accomplish this largely by making clean energy cheaper — that’s the goal of the Inflation Reduction Act, of course — and he has also changed federal rules so it’s slightly easier to build power lines and large-scale renewable projects. He has also added teeth to that goal in the form of new Environmental Protection Agency rules cracking down on coal and natural gas.

Keep reading...Show less
Green
Technology

AM Briefing: Greenlight for Geoengineering?

On the return of geoengineering, climate lawsuits, and a cheaper EV.

Sunrise over a mountain.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Current conditions: Battered Midwest in for more bad weather this weekend • Tornadoes keep hitting the Great Plains • A heat wave in New Delhi that pushed temperatures above 116 degrees Fahrenheit on Friday is expected to last several more days.

THE TOP FIVE

1. Red states challenge climate lawsuits

Nineteen Republican-led states are asking the Supreme Court to stop Democrat-led states from trying to force oil and gas companies to pay for the impacts of climate change. Rhode Island in 2018 became the first state to sue major oil companies for climate damages and has since been joined by California, Connecticut, Minnesota, and New Jersey. The states pursuing legal action against oil companies are trying to “dictate the future of the American energy industry,” the Republican attorneys general argued in a motion filed this week, “not by influencing federal legislation or by petitioning federal agencies, but by imposing ruinous liability and coercive remedies on energy companies” through the court system.

Keep reading...Show less