Winnipeg Free Press:“The View from the West, A
Forum for Ideas and Opinion”, 7 September, 2003
The need for a national grid
by David Orchard
This summer's blackout in Ontario has left Canadians wondering how a
nation so abundantly endowed with inexpensive electricity could be
reduced to importing expensive power from the U.S. and asking its
citizens to stay home from work to avoid another outage.
Ontario industry incurred huge losses due to an electricity shortage
while both of its two neighbouring provinces, Manitoba and Quebec, have
surpluses which they export. Why are our power-exporting provinces
connected to U.S. electricity grids but not linked to each other through
a Canadian grid?
In the aftermath of the blackout, some, perhaps without much knowledge
of history, are advocating further privatization of Ontario's power. It
is worth looking at why our power utilities became publicly owned in the
In the early 1900s, the water rights and power plants of Niagara Falls
had been privatized and were in U.S. hands. Because the private utility
companies were exporting more than 60 per cent of their power to the
U.S. market and had failed to adequately supply Ontario residents and
industry, the founder of Ontario Hydro, Sir Adam Beck, reversed the
privatization and Ontario's power grid was unified under public
ownership. Under his slogan "Power at Cost," the hard-driving
industrialist built Ontario Hydro into the world's largest publicly
owned power authority, providing low-cost power to Ontarians and laying
a cornerstone of the public-enterprise tradition in Canada.
Have we forgotten this lesson? In the early 1960s, the cabinet of Prime
Minister John Diefenbaker grappled with the lack of a national
electricity line and concluded that a coast-to-coast power grid "would
make possible substantial economies." Merrill and June Menzies, the
husband-and-wife team of economists advising Diefenbaker, supported the
argument that it would "build a more unified Canada, allow a better
utilization of our other resources and make for a more even distribution
of our prosperity." Diefenbaker convened a 1962 federal-provincial
conference on the topic and compared a national energy grid to
implementation of transcontinental railways, a nationwide aviation
system and trans-Canada radio and TV networks, saying all were "links
helping bind the country together."
Provincial resistance and a reversal of national policy in favour of
exports by the subsequent Pearson administration, however, killed the
national-grid proposal, and today we are seeing the results. Ontario
followed the nuclear path. Quebec refused to allow Newfoundland to
transmit power from Churchill Falls through its territory, while B.C.
and Manitoba have linked their power systems to U.S. utilities.
Several exporting provinces are now linked more closely to U.S. grids
than to each other, and none more so than Ontario, which has linked
itself so tightly to the U.S. that a malfunction in that country can
knock out Ontario's entire grid. Provincial surpluses are going to
continental rather than national use, as Ontario found out so abruptly
last month. We still have no national energy grid in Canada.
As Karl Froschauer points out in his groundbreaking book, White Gold --
Hydroelectric Power in Canada, although less than 10 per cent of
Canada's electricity is exported, a disproportionate emphasis is being
placed on exports to the detriment of Canada's own needs. (In 1990, for
example, less than five per cent of Canada's electrical production was
exported.) Disregarding this reality, some provincial utilities are
voluntarily placing themselves under U.S. regulatory law, splitting into
separate generating and distributing units to conform with the rules of
the U.S. Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC).
A failure of leadership has led to a situation where we are exporting
power and handing the regulation of our provincial utilities over to
foreign bodies before assuring that Canadian needs are met.
A Conservative finance minister, Sir Henry Drayton, dramatically warned
in the1920s that "power exported is power lost." Liberal Prime Minister
McKenzie King insisted that "power... shall be utilized within the
Dominion to stimulate Canadian industry and develop the natural
resources." Such warnings remain unheeded and assurances unfulfilled
eight decades later.
This summer's blackout of Canada's most industrialized province, with
the paralysis of both our largest city and the nation's capital, points
to the urgency of creating a national energy link to ensure that
Canadians and their industries -- from Newfoundland through southern
Ontario to Victoria -- have a secure, affordable supply of energy. A
summer power outage is one thing, costly and uncomfortable as it may be;
one in winter is a matter of life and death.
Repeated and reputable studies have shown a national transmission line
would deliver clear benefits: increased security of supply, so no part
of Canada would have to worry about blackouts due to a power shortage; a
substantial drop in pollution, since power from dirty plants could be
replaced with cleaner, existing hydro power; a reduced requirement for
new power plants; and a more efficient use of existing power due to
staggered peak-load periods across the five Canadian time-zones.
Reliable observers maintain that the savings in reduced capacity alone
could cover the cost of a coast-to-coast line.
A less tangible, but no less real, benefit would be a sense of increased
security, a drawing-together of the nation of which Diefenbaker spoke so
eloquently four decades ago.
David Orchard is the author
of The Fight for Canada -- Four Centuries of
Resistance to American Expansionism. He was a
recent contender for the leadership of the federal
Progressive Conservative Party and farms at Borden,
Sask. He can be reached at tel (306) 652-7095; e-mail: