Alberta energy grid woes renew concerns over climate change and infrastructure

Click to play video: 'Extreme cold puts pressure on Alberta’s energy grid'
Extreme cold puts pressure on Alberta’s energy grid
The extreme cold drove up demand on the power grid, prompting Alberta’s energy operator to declare a grid alert. Sarah Offin reports. – Jan 12, 2024

Alberta’s recent energy grid woes have renewed concerns about how prepared Canada’s critical infrastructure systems are to weather the effects of climate change and extreme weather — and the potential security implications if they fail.

On Monday, the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) issued renewed calls for people in the province to limit their energy use after severe cold weather and “several” power facility outages had threatened rolling blackouts.

It was the fourth such alert issued by the organization since Friday, and urged Albertans to limit their power consumption during peak periods.

Cold weather in Western Canada is nothing new, but neither are concerns that Canada’s critical infrastructure systems – power grids, telecommunications systems, and finance and transportation networks, to name a few – are not prepared for more extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change.

The federal government has taken what’s known as an “all hazards” approach to critical infrastructure risks – essentially that all risks, from climate change to terrorist attacks to nation-state hacking, have to be considered when thinking about systems like power grids or telecommunications networks.

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“The first sign of World War Three is that your lights are going to go off,” Aaron Shull, the managing director of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said in an interview with Global News Wednesday.

“That’s the world that we live in. So ‘all hazards,’ but a preference for the fact that we’re in this world where hostile or adversarial states are now seeking advantage on the back of our critical infrastructure.”

Click to play video: 'BC Hydro sets new record for electricity demand'
BC Hydro sets new record for electricity demand

Managing critical infrastructure is a shared responsibility between Canada’s three levels of government, as well as public and private sector groups that operate those systems. That can make addressing problems with critical infrastructure – or even knowing a problem exists – a complex undertaking.

“The risks are increasingly complex and frequent. They include natural, intentional and accidental hazards,” a joint federal-provincial report on critical infrastructure noted in 2009.

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“As the rate and severity of national disasters increases, so does the possibility that disruptions of critical infrastructure could result in prolonged loss of essential services.”

The report noted that the risks of failure are heightened by how different types of critical infrastructure depend on each other – for instance, the financial sector and the telecommunications sector – “which can lead to cascading effects expanding across borders and sectors.”

The federal government’s 2022 critical infrastructure plan added threats that weren’t top-of-mind in in 2009, including the threat of foreign interference, cyber security threats and the impact of major public health crises on supply chains.

But Shull noted that there is an acknowledgement within the federal government that Canada is “trailing” on addressing threats and risks to critical infrastructure even as the challenges get more pronounced.

A 2023 internal document from a senior officials meeting on national security issues suggested “international partners … have updated, or are in the process of updating, their approaches to critical infrastructure (CI) security and resilience.”

“New and rapidly evolving threats pose a greater risk of harm to Canadians and their cyber, economic, and national security,” the document read.

Cyber threats, in particular, have been an increasing concern for critical infrastructure operators in recent years. The experience of the Colonial Pipeline shutdown – allegedly at the hands of a Russian-backed cyber criminal group – cost the company $4.3 million and disrupted business, although the money was eventually recouped by U.S. authorities.

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Closer to home, “ransomware” attacks – where organizations are locked out of their systems until they pay the criminal group – have caused serious issues for hospitals and health authorities, such as a 2021 attack in Newfoundland and Labrador that caused thousands of medical appointments to be cancelled in that province.

Click to play video: 'Canada must protect ‘critical infrastructure’ amid ongoing wildfires, Wilkinson says'
Canada must protect ‘critical infrastructure’ amid ongoing wildfires, Wilkinson says

It all comes as the world faces increasingly volatile climate changes, with severe weather swings ranging from extreme heat to brutal cold, as well as a record wildfire season, growing drought fears in many regions, and damaging floods all causing major damage globally over the past year.

And the year to come will likely be no easier.

Canada is already on track for a 2024 marked by above-normal temperatures and a below-normal snowpack, which climate experts say is “a reason for concern as we’re looking ahead to the 2024 wildfire season.”

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Heavy use of air conditioning during hot weather can put additional strain on the power grid and similarly heighten the risk of blackouts.

Tim Weis, an industrial professor with the faculty of engineering at the University of Alberta, said in an interview with Global News Calgary earlier this week  that the situation raises important questions that need to be considered for future energy security.

“I think we need to wrestle with that and realize that we are moving into a world where there’s going to be more electrical demands on the system,” he said.

— with files from Saba Aziz, Nathaniel Dove and Carolyn Kury de Castillo

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