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What’s next for Canada’s energy sector

Plastics in Canada editor Erika Beauchesne examines the issues from inside one of the largest hydroelectric plants in the world


January 5, 2011
by Erika Beauchesne

BEAUHARNOIS, QUE.—Walking through Hydro Québec’s Beauharnois generation station is like stepping back in time to 1929―the year construction started on what is now one of the largest hydroelectric plants in the world.

Located about an hour’s drive outside of Montreal, Beauharnois stretches nearly a kilometre and handles up to 8200 cubic metres of water per second.

Photo courtesy of Hydro Quebec

The facility has kept its original art-deco design of brick walls, tall factory windows and dated tea green paint on most of the fixtures.

“We still have machines from 75 years ago,” says Guy Lavoie, tour guide and communications advisor with Hydro Quebec.

That means ongoing repairs at the 325-employee plant, Lavoie says, pointing out one of the facility’s 38 generating units that was just refurbished this year.

Heat is another challenge with an older building.

He motions to several windows that are cracked open―even in late November―to air out the humidity.

Photo courtesy of Hydro Quebec

While Beauharnois is unique for its national heritage building status, it’s not the only energy generating facility facing infrastructure challenges.

A recent report from the consulting firm Deloitte pegs repair work at $150 billion if Canadian generating stations, transmission and distribution lines are going to meet growing demand.

“Canada has a lot of energy plants that are aging. Over the coming years, that’s going to require investments to extend the plants’ lives or replace them completely,” says Jane Allen, a partner at Deloitte’s Toronto office.

She says on top of this, facilities have to act “in an environment of volatility” with no long-term government policies on greenhouse gas emissions, rapidly changing technology and energy pricing.

“The biggest issue for the energy sector―and I don’t see it changing for a while―is going to be what kind of role government decides to take and how heavy-handed that role could be,” Allen says.

She adds, however, that things are changing more rapidly in some parts of the country.

“We’ve seen in Ontario, the Green Energy Act has given rise to both small and large renewable energy projects that are just now going ahead.”

At least one facility in Ontario has recognized that cleaner production will provide an upper hand in the changing industry.

“Energy efficiency is a real challenge and combustion turbine electricity production is a very competitive market,” says Curtis Mahoney, general manager at the Portlands Energy Centre, a 550-megwatt natural gas plant in Toronto.

Photo courtesy of the Portlands Energy Centre

To keep pace, the plant upgraded their combustion control software to General Electric’s Opflex startup and turndown, a computer system to improve efficiency at lower outputs.

According to Mahoney, the initial set back has paid off in savings, but not all investment risks are worth taking.

He says technology changes in the industry are frequent, significant and “very expensive” so sometimes it’s best to let the competition try them out first.

“We try to remain somewhat off the cutting edge for technology advances to see how [they] actually perform and deliver,” he says.

Evaluating how new processes play out makes sense for the 27-employee plant, but larger industry players are coming up with their own solutions to improve sustainability.

Hydro Québec showcased several inventions at its research facility in Varennes.

The utility was the first to experiment with eel ladders, devices that help fish navigate more safely in power dams.

After installing two of the ladders at both ends of its Beauharnois dam, the endangered fish’s survival rate hit a new high of 80-90 per cent.

Hydro Québec has also collaborated with a US-based wood treatment company, Arch Wood Protection Inc., to come up with a polymer-based additive that can be injected into wood poles, making them easier to climb.

Another invention to improve worker health and safety recently it earned Hydro Québec the American Edison Electric Institute’s 2010 Edison Award for leadership and innovation.

Hydro Québec developed a robotic device that inspects high-voltage transmission lines across long passages that workers would otherwise have to scale themselves.

Photo courtesy of Hydro Quebec

It worked with the British Columbia Transmissions Corp. to test out its LineScout Technology, which uses cameras to find and repair irregularities.

The robot is now being used in Quebec and B.C. and several countries are interested in buying the technology.

These kinds of innovations are crucial for an industry with its fair share of workplace safety risks.

According to the Canadian Electricity Association (CEA), the majority of incidents among 39 reporting utilities were caused by over-exertion, falls from elevation and being struck by objects.

Over-performance is another risk, as the sector’s more than 67,000 employees worked in excess of one billion hours a year in 2009.

But the CEA’s data suggests things are getting better.

For every 200,000 hours worked in 2009, there were 2.15 injuries, a 25 per cent decrease from the previous year.

There was also zero worker fatalities in 2009 compared to four the previous year.

The CEA credits more focus on injury prevention programs and enhanced safety training for the reduction.

Further safety improvements could help utilities with worker recruitment and retainment, another challenge outlined in the Deloitte report.

“The sector will need unique skills, more nuclear operators…more people with understanding of new technologies emerging in areas like carbon capture and storage and especially smart grids,” Allen says.

Photo courtesy of the Portlands Energy Centre

At the Portlands Energy Centre, Mahoney says they’re already seeing a shortage of skilled labour, particularly tradespeople, with more qualified people retiring amid declining employment.

“There is a double loss of skilled personnel, first as the person exits the work force and secondly, the people to whom skills have not been transferred.”

The report points to several strategies to brace for the talent shortage, such as “re-skilling” and cross-training existing workers, investing in training and development programs and building alliances with academic institutions to attract new students.

It also recommends plant managers use economic and demographic data on external talent markets to analyse labour supply and demand, while thinking about how their workforce needs will change in the years ahead and what kinds of people they’ll need.

But even if facilities can overcome the talent shortage and improve productivity with sustainable practices and technological innovations, it may not be enough to place Canada at the leading edge of energy production.

Inventions such as the LineScout technology are turning heads and Hydro Québec claims there’s been a $3 return for every dollar invested at its Varennes research and development centre, but Canada will have to up its game to keep pace with other regions.

“Innovation in Canada’s electricity sector is quite good, but countries such as Japan, other parts of Asia and Europe are investing more while our networks are aging,” says Gaétan Lantagne, scientific director at the Varennes research institute.

The report says there’s plenty of opportunity for Canada’s energy sector in areas such as manufacturing and renewable energy production, but it will require greater investment in skills and technology.

“When you go to places like the World Energy Congress and hear what Korea, India and China are doing, where government is collaborating with industry, it does seem like Canada is not doing as much as it could be,” Allen says.

“We need to create an attractive investment climate and that’s going to require more R&D.”