Report from Manitoba

In early August, at the invitation of the Government of Canada, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) organized a delegation of about a dozen energy executives from the Midwest U.S. to visit Canada to explore energy and environmental issues of common interest to the center of North America.  From my prior participation on a CCGA task force in 2009, which produced a report on the benefits to the Midwest from proactively participating in shaping energy/climate policy, I was lucky enough to be invited by the CCGA to join the group traveling to Canada.

Our first stop in Canada was Manitoba, where we focused on some of the more notable activities being undertaken by Manitoba Hydro, the provincial electric utility. 

We convened at Manitoba Hydro’s headquarters building, Manitoba Hydro Place, a two-year old 22-story gem in downtown Winnipeg.  The winner of several architectural awards, Manitoba Hydro Place is on a path to LEED Platinum certification, the highest standard of energy efficiency excellence.  The office tower has a number of fascinating heating, cooling and humidification/dehumidification concepts applied throughout in very fundamental ways that enable such a large building to be fully climate-controlled with only occasional reliance on a relatively small geothermal heat pump system, resulting in per-square-foot energy consumption levels about 20% the norm for buildings of this type.  This is especially impressive given the harsh climate that the building must face, with hot summers peaking at nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) and annual lows down to -35 degrees (in Celsius or Fahrenheit, it’s about the same). 

For a province with such abundant low-cost hydroelectric resources, one might wonder why Manitoba Hydro would emphasize energy efficiency not only at its own facilities, but also through a sizable demand-side management program rolled out to its customers.  In our briefing with the Premier (provincial minister), the genial and very-well-informed Greg Selinger, the overall energy strategy was made explicit:  Manitoba would like to more fully develop and export its immense run-of-river hydroelectric potential to the U.S. to serve the renewable energy markets there.  (Note that Manitoba drains about 20% of all of the precipitation that falls on the North American continent.)

So that we could see how vast this potential is, and how environmentally benign run-of-river hydro energy can be, we subsequently flew via small Perimeter Air turboprop to the northern Manitoba outpost of Gillam about 400 miles above Winnipeg, where we toured the 1200 megawatt Kettle Generating Station

Crucially unlike the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas or the Three Gorges Dam in China, Kettle didn’t displace habitats or populations by creating a massive new lake where one never existed.  True, some land was flooded as a result of Kettle’s construction, but let me assure you that the terrain and topography that was lost in the process is by no means scarce:  hundreds of thousands of square miles of virtually indistinguishable unpopulated territory stretch up there for as far as the eye can see from an airplane.

At Kettle, we were informed by plant management that fish (primarily pickerel) seemed to be genuinely unaffected by the existence of the hydro facility.  Long ago, I was told a joke by power engineers that “fish-friendly-hydro” is as oxymoronic as “grass-friendly-lawnmowers”.  This is probably why hydroelectricity is often ineligible to be considered “renewable” for the purposes of complying with renewable portfolio standard policies that have been enacted in many U.S. states:  many environmentalists aren’t very keen on hydro.   However, I can attest to having seen an otter and a loon both swimming in the downstream wake of the Kettle dam in waters that looked pretty turbulent — and I can only suspect that they were there at least partially for feeding purposes.

Because it is clearly zero-emission and involves a renewable resource (precipitation), and because it doesn’t cause sizable apparent negative impacts on the regional environment, I don’t see significant problems associated with more run-of-river hydro development in northern Manitoba. 

Manitoba Hydro allowed us into places and spaces for better viewing that I’m sure would have caused any OSHA  representative to faint.  The sights at Kettle were impressive, though nothing particularly rare within the power industry:  all big hydro facilities are impressive.

Just down the (gravel) road, though, was something quite extraordinary:  the Radisson Converter Station.

Conventional power grids are alternating current (AC).  Hydroelectric dams produce AC electricity.  However, shipping power across hundreds of miles of desolate landscape over AC lines is inefficient:  capital costs and losses are high, rights-of-way are wide.  In contrast, long-distance transmission using high-voltage direct current (HVDC) is much more economically-attractive on a per-mile basis.

There’s just one challenge:  converting thousands of megawatts of AC power at high-voltage to HVDC is not so easy, nor is it cheap.

Radisson is one of the largest and oldest HVDC converter stations in the world.  For as long as Kettle has been in place, Radisson has been taking its output, converting it into HVDC, and then sending it down a 400 mile set of 450 kv HVDC lines, to be reconverted into AC at a similar station (called Dorsey) in suburban Winnipeg.  Something of the magnitude of Radisson is very rare indeed.

Surrounded by switchgear and transformers akin to those found at any major substation on the power grid, a large warehouse-like building houses several sets of immense converter valves known as thyristors.  The heart of the operation, these thyristors are like transistors on steroids, chattering continuously like enormous jackhammers.  

The side-trip from Winnipeg to Gillam illustrated the basic conundrum that Manitoba faces:  all this excellent hydro resource, but it’s a thousand miles from the nearest underserved large load centers in the U.S.  While it’s relatively easy for Manitoba to increase its transmission capacity — the province can essentially assert control of rights-of-way, and population effects are minimal — getting the needed transmission expansions in the U.S. is oh-so-difficult, time-consuming and hence expensive. 

No doubt, the purpose of our visit to Manitoba was to build goodwill and generate more support as/if transmission expansion in the northern Midwest U.S. occurs to facilitate more movement of hydropower from Manitoba into the U.S.  From my standpoint, I’m in — but I also know that I alone (and my fellow travelers) will not have much incremental impact in aiding new transmission capacity to come on-line.

After about 28 whirlwind hours in Manitoba, our next stop on the Canadian tour was Alberta.  This will be the subject of a future posting, as there is even more of interest to the cleantech community to report from there.

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