Alberta's electricity market watchdog is planning a full review of Monday's power shortage in which the unexpected failure of six generating stations led to skyrocketing prices and rotating blackouts.
Harry Chandler, head of the province's Market System Administrator, said his team of experts will scrutinize outage reports, could seize maintenance records and may even make site visits to find out if the shutdowns on one of the hottest days of the year were legitimate.
"I wouldn't say it's an investigation at this stage, but we are looking very closely at the situation," Chandler said.
"We're always on the lookout for anomalies and this would definitely qualify, but I don't want to suggest right now that there's been any conspiracy or collusion."
Both Energy Minister Ken Hughes and the Alberta Electric System Operator, which oversees the power grid and directed utilities to cut off tens of thousands of consumers, say there is nothing to suggest the market was manipulated.
But Wildrose MLA Joe Anglin said it was "incredibly suspicious" the generators all went off-line within hours.
Spot electricity prices spiked to the maximum $1,000 per megawatthour in the afternoon after trading as low as $11 earlier in the day.
Paul Wright, ATCO Power's vice-president of finance, conceded that his company did see a financial gain from these prices, as would all of the generators.
But Wright said speculation by critics that the power companies worked in concert is untrue. ATCO had two generators fail Monday.
"Our situation is that it was an issue at the plant," Wright said.
"It wasn't anything more than that."
A power consultant's report completed for AESO a year ago called on the power grid operator to triple the cap price to $3,000 per megawatthour, an adjustment that would lessen the likelihood of blackouts.
Johannes Pfeifenberger, an economist with the Brattle Group, said the hike would have prompted industrial and commercial users to voluntarily reduce their demand in peak periods.
"The prices need to go high enough so some customers will back off," Pfeifenberger said. "If the hike had been implemented a year ago, more customers would have feared this would happen and they would have put technology or infrastructure in place so they could respond."
He said Monday's load shedding of approximately 200 MW - about two per cent of total demand across the province - could have been easily avoided.
"One large industrial user could have curtailed its load and the whole province would have avoided rolling blackouts," he said.
"Given an incentive, lots of businesses might have be willing to sign a contract to turn off their air conditioners for an hour or two."
But Doug Simpson, AESO's director of market operations, said he's not convinced a higher cap price would have prevented this week's rolling blackouts.
"This is the first time we've had to do this in six years," said Simpson, "and I think it would be a bit of an overreaction to raise our cap because of it."
Still, he said the Brattle Group's recommendations are being looked at and a decision on whether to hike the price will be made in the next few months.
"We took the report very seriously, but we don't think we can just act without further analysis,"
John MacCormack, an engineering doctoral student at the University of Calgary who is studying Alberta's electricity market, said the reliability of province's power supply seems to have been maintained despite market deregulation.
"Monday was a bit of a perfect storm," MacCormack said.
"There's always a finite probability that more generators will fail then you're prepared to recover from at any one moment."
A former control room operator, he said AESO employees would have been scrambling to find surplus power they could buy from out of province or large users they convince to reduce their consumption.
"At some point, you just have to shed load," MacCormack said.
"It's not something you want to do or something you take lightly."
While Mondays problems weren't directly related to transmission line issues, one expert said the public and politicians should take note.
University of Alberta electrical engineering professor Wilsun Xu said if more investors are to be encouraged to build power generation, they want good pathways to electricity get it to market.
"If we have a good transmission infrastructure, that helps to create an incentive for different people and put power into the grid," he said.
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