Flattening the curve pushed up the peaks in Ontario’s electricity system this summer. After scrambling to recalibrate their models to the dramatic drop in demand in the early days of COVID-19-related shutdowns, analysts with the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) faced more uncharted territory when the seasons changed.
“We got caught off guard by the heat. Particularly, we were not ready for the amount of air-conditioning load that we would see,” Chuck Farmer, senior director of power system planning with the IESO, acknowledged during a recent webinar sponsored by Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Energy.
Province-wide, the average weekday peak demand was 7 per cent higher in July and 10 per cent higher in August than during recent pre-pandemic summers, even while average daily energy consumption remained relatively stable for the two eras. Farmer attributes that to a significant spike in residential demand and the temporary suspension of the Industrial Conservation Initiative (ICI), which halted 1,000 to 1,200 megawatts (MW) of energy load curtailment during peak demand periods. Together, those factors upended assumptions that peaks would remain relatively consistent as consumption shifted from the commercial/industrial sector to residential households.
“The reality is, with the number of people at home and the nature of the weather that we got, the peaks started to go well above where we expected them to be,” he said. “We actually saw a peak demand on the system that was higher than we had seen since 2013.”
Yet, he stresses there was little threat of blackouts or brownouts — reassurance that Ministry of Energy officials sought before adjusting the ICI program rules.
“We determined there would not be a reliability concern,” Farmer confirmed. “There hasn’t really been any issue in supplying this changed demand.”
Accordingly, in addressing the webinar topic, Power Through the Pandemic, he and co-presenter Saad Rafi, senior advisor to the City of Toronto’s Office of Recovery and Rebuild, focused largely on pressures on electricity consumers rather than supply and distribution. Before musing on the energy-use implications of a financial, professional and information services workforce still predominantly ensconced in home offices, Rafi tallied a number of health and economic risks that are intensified for frontline workers, members of multi-generational and/or crowded households and those who have no housing.
“This pandemic has exacerbated conditions for people who can’t be (working) at home,” he asserted. “We need to address that going forward.”
Lifestyle changes mute influence of price triggers
IESO analysts conclude temporary lifting of time-of-use (TOU) electricity rates, beginning on March 24, contributed little to increased residential consumption. The upheaval of taking end-users out of workplaces and schools and confining them in their homes for the entire day is presumed to far outweigh the pull of a perceived discount on power use.
“The data on the peak reductions related to time-of-use is not very strong so we don’t have a lot of information,” Farmer said. “Our sense is that this particular change, while there would have been impact, got lost in the bigger impact of the changed lifestyle patterns.”
System-wide, the data does show a substantial drop in weekday peak demand in April — down 13 per cent compared to the pre-pandemic period — when regulated price plan (RPP) customers were paying the off-peak rate of 10.1 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), versus the jump in peak demand after the RPP rate was increased to 12.8 cents/kWh on June 1. A yet-to-be revealed new price schedule is slated to begin November 1, which will allow RPP customers to choose either time-of-use rates or tiered pricing, with differing rates tied to levels of consumption.
Rafi foresees cost will be burdensome for some apartment and condominium dwellers, especially as they are expected to catch up with payments — rent, mortgage, property tax — that were deferred in the grips of the lockdown.
“I think it stands to reason, if you look at the socio-economic makeup of renters and the affordability of that rental stock, that food, energy and other staples play a large part in those household expenses,” he said. “If your income is impacted, if not lost, and your building is somewhat inefficient, at best, if there is a postponement of payment, it doesn’t matter because these bills will still come back to be paid.”
Looking at contemplated investments to counter COVID-19’s economic hit and spur renewed growth, Toronto’s tower renewal project, focused on revitalizing aging apartment buildings, could be well placed to capture stimulus funds from upper levels of government since the program framework is already in place and it meets criteria to create jobs, improve people lives and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“There is a green industry recovery that is taking off globally. Ontario and Toronto need to get their piece of that,” Rafi observed. “We’ve talked about residential tower renewal as a great opportunity for efficiency gains.”
He also prioritizes retraining, skills development, improving digital access for underserved segments of the population, and other investments in the public realm with public transit, affordable housing and affordable childcare ranking high on the list. “Addressing what people call the social determinants of health will drive down costs in other areas and have a clear ROI, and will increase growth and prosperity for the province and the country,” Rafi maintained.
Consistent pre- and post-pandemic direction
Perhaps evident in this summer’s “disconnect” between energy consumption and peak demand, Farmer calls for more research on energy end-use and behavioural influences. “I think our understanding of how people use energy on the other side of the meter is quite weak, and also of how they intend to use energy,” he observes.
In contrast to those less precise factors, smart meter technology and real-time data proved integral to responding to COVID-19’s new playbook.
“In terms of operating the system, as our models went sideways, we had a very good team that worked on analysis,” Farmer recounted. “Access to data, for us, was extremely important. We have a smart meter entity that takes in all of the meter data, and we were able to get access to that, see what was happening and be able pick it apart. That helped us build our models back up as the economy began to reopen.”
Given that this summer’s confluence of intense heat and an at-home workforce may not be a one-off scenario, distributed generation and energy storage offer a sustainable means to meet the peaks and avoid more capital-intensive investments in other types of generating capacity. Farmer underscores IESO priorities to better integrate distributed generation into the grid and provide other supports for both developers and adopters — and reiterates that those priorities predate the pandemic.
“We are going where we have always been trying to go, which is to have an affordable and reliable electricity system,” he submitted. “I don’t think the pandemic has really altered that focus or that direction. It will change the size and the timing of some of the needs we had seen on the system, but in general, the direction is still the same. We are in the process of refurbishing our nuclear fleet to give us a very clean backbone of energy production; we continue to develop mechanisms to add new resources to the system; we continue to work closely with communities, our local distribution company partners, Hydro One and transmitters to do local reliability ”
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.