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Exploring the electricity grid

Want to understand your energy bill better? Get to know about the electricity grid that serves you and how the demand for electricity is measured.

What is electrical demand?

Instantaneously, any time of the day or night, electricity is there to power everything from your family’s microwave to the high-speed presses that print your daily newspaper. Unfortunately, large amounts of electrical energy cannot be stored. It must be supplied to your whenever your appliances or heating equipment calls for it, in whatever quantity you need.

So electrical demand is the amount of electricity you require at any given point in time. When you turn on an electric appliance, a “demand” for power is created. This instantaneous amount of electricity demand is measured in watts.

 

Start exploring our grid

To help shed some light on the electricity system, this series explores the electricity grid that serves BC’s Southern Interior.

Part 1: Standing strong: giving new life to B.C. building blocks

There are few places where past meets present like it does at the dams on B.C.’s Kootenay River. They appear almost frozen in time, building blocks in B.C.’s iconic heritage. The dams go back to the late 1800s and early 1900s when mining, gold prospecting and wartime activities powered major growth in the Kootenays. However, over the past two decades the dams have been given new life with millions of dollars in upgrades. 

Peter Kabel has spent 26 years on the Kootenay River working on FortisBC’s four hydroelectric generating stations – South Slocan, Upper and Lower Bonnington, and Corra Linn – and has played a big role in updating them. “I’ve always been a history buff and that’s one of the reasons I took this job – the history of the area and the history of the plants. I just got absorbed into it,” said Kabel, who started as a machinist and worked his way up to his current role as FortisBC construction manager, Generation.

The Lower Bonnington dam was completed in 1898. Power generated at the dam travelled 51 kilometers to Rossland through the longest and highest voltage transmission line in North America at the time. The falls on Kootenay River proved to be perfect for generating electricity, and other dams soon followed to capture the power of the Kootenay River. Upper Bonnington was built in 1907 to meet the rising demand for electricity; it was upgraded in 1916 and extended to include new generating units in 1940. The South Slocan dam was completed in 1928. Lastly, Corra Linn was built upstream of the three generating facilities in 1932. It was the first dam to create water storage on the Kootenay River, which helped with flood control and ensured a constant supply of water for downstream dams.

Kabel has helped give FortisBC’s dams many a facelift over the years, with much of the vintage equipment from the 1920s and ’30s upgraded to today’s standards. In 2011, FortisBC completed a program started in 1998 to renew its four generating facilities through a continuous steam of significant upgrades, including rebuilding 11 of the 15 hydroelectric generating units at the four generating stations.  The “water to wires” refurbishments saw turbines replaced with more efficient equipment, controls automated for better reliability, buildings upgraded for safety, spill gates rebuilt and new transmission lines installed. “Where we sit today from where we sat 20 years ago, we have a brand new system,” said Kabel.

While the way electricity is generated at hydroelectric dams has remained largely the same over the years, the way it’s monitored and distributed has changed. Upgrading the electricity system while keeping customer rates low is one of the challenges faced by every utility. Since 2004, FortisBC has invested $500 million into the electricity system, including work on the dams and improvements to substations and transmission lines. Those changes are most evident in their invisibility.

Today’s electricity system is so reliable that we rarely think about where the power comes from. It wasn’t always that way, said Kabel. Frequently flickering lights were a byproduct of utilities doing their best to manually manage the ever-fluctuating electricity load. The “tricky part” of generation, said Kabel, is that the load changes throughout the day. In the early years of generation, someone would monitor the amount of power being used by customers, and adjust as use spiked and dipped. “Now everything is automated,” said Kabel, adding that the electrical system is more reliable and efficient thanks to the work done by the many talented FortisBC employees. “We’ve always been a team here at Generation,” said Kabel.

Part 2: Keeping up with the demand for electricity

When your lights go out, Kelly Corfield knows how to turn them back on. The South Okanagan operations supervisor for FortisBC has helped restore power in lightning storms, snow storms and wind storms. He says there’s nothing quite like the feeling of getting the power back on in the aftermath of Mother Nature’s wrath. “Our job can be very satisfying,” said Corfield, FortisBC’s operations supervisor in the South Okanagan.

He sums up his experience by saying he’s been climbing poles for 35 years. “The best part is when you go out at 2 a.m. after a lightning storm comes through, and you know you’ve got the power on. A nice thing about being a utility lineman is you’re usually making people better off.” Corfield has also helped repair lines and poles damaged during some of the most dangerous weather events to pummel B.C., including the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire and the 2006 windstorm that tore through Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

Restoring power under some of the most difficult circumstances is, thankfully, a rare occurrence. Most of Corfield’s work involves ongoing maintenance and upgrades to keep the electricity system working safely and reliably. He has seen the electricity grid undergo significant changes, including constant upgrades to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for electricity. “We’re going to bigger poles, heavier wire every year. People don’t notice it because it’s still a pole standing there,” he said. “With everybody wanting more power to their home these days, we’re constantly putting up new transformers to carry the load.” Those upgrades to homes have a cascading effect, requiring upgrades to all the other parts of the system to support increased demand.

A lot of well-maintained and constantly upgraded infrastructure is needed all over the Southern Interior to safely and reliably deliver electricity to the 130,000 customers who depend on FortisBC. The Canadian company acquired all the generation, transmission and distribution assets from U.S.-based Aquila Inc. in 2004. Those assets are better known as previously belonging to West Kootenay Power, and make up the longest continuously operating electrical system in B.C. However, aging infrastructure had been causing reliability issues, so FortisBC began an ambitious program to rebuild and modernize much of its transmission and distribution system. Since taking over ownership and operation, FortisBC has invested about $500 million into the electricity system.

FortisBC has built more than a dozen new substations and completed major rebuilds on over a dozen more; built and upgraded transmission lines throughout the Southern Interior; and replaced old communications systems with satellite, cellular and fibre-optic networks.

Upgrading the electricity system while keeping customer rates low is one of the challenges faced by every utility in North America. The investment has been paying off with an increasingly reliable system. The average amount of time Southern Interior residents were without power has been cut nearly in half over the past decade. All that work to improve reliability and capacity in the system means FortisBC has can meet growing demand as more customers continue to connect to the system.

Part 3: Building strong relationships with the communities we serve

​When Blair Weston visits a house in the Kootenays, he’s just as comfortable at the kitchen table as he is on the roof. Before taking on his current role as Community and Aboriginal Relations Manager for FortisBC, Weston spent years helping people become more energy efficient as a technical advisor with FortisBC’s PowerSense program. “I’ve been on a lot of roofs in the Kootenays,” laughed Weston, who does community relations throughout southeast B.C.

Those face-to-face visits with customers, helping them save money on their electricity bills, as well as rebate cheque presentations for energy upgrades, are a highlight for Weston.  “Having that personal contact is really important,” he said. “It’s awesome to give out money for the work people do.”

“Helping customers isn’t just about supporting the community, it’s about being part of it,” he said. The members of the community relations team spend time in every community where FortisBC has customers, establishing relationships and keeping people informed.

One of Weston’s most memorable experiences with FortisBC was in 2011, when the company contributed $10,000 for the construction of a new voyager canoe for the Ktunaxa Nation’s entry into the David Thompson Columbia River Canoe Brigade, commemorating the explorer’s journeys mapping trade routes across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. “It was a three-day journey and FortisBC employees helped paddle the canoe along the way,” he said, adding as the journey progressed, canoe riders would give up their spots in the boat for new paddlers.  That’s just one of the ways the FortisBC and its employees help to build communities.

For the past six years, the FortisBC has sponsored CANstruction, and in 2013 employees used 4,500 cans of food to build a giant-sized Mr. Potato Head for the event. At Christmas time, the company donates to food banks. Community Giving Days are always popular events for employees to volunteer their time. From Crime Stoppers to Make a Wish Foundation, from BC Children’s Hospital to Canadian Cancer Society FortisBC works with organizations in nearly every B.C. community.

It’s important for those working at FortisBC to build genuine relationships in their communities, said Weston. Those relationships help gain insights on how best to help customers in all 135 communities where the company operates.

Weston often finds himself in a liaison role when electricity or natural gas projects are happening in communities. Since he’s already established relationships with people in the community, he can introduce them to the people within FortisBC who can answer questions. “I listen to what people have to say, and then I get them to the right people to answer their questions. At city council meetings, for example, I’ll do the introduction and the expert will do the speaking,” said Weston.

“I’ve learned a lot from helping to solve issues and working alongside the people from FortisBC. I’m fortunate work with knowledgeable people, like regional managers, engineers and operations staff. They make it a priority to talk to people and they do a great job.”