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An Essay about an Essay

This is -37°C in Cochrane. Aesthetic, but my body was suffering in that frigid air.

We felt it recently—all of us on the prairies.  It was an extreme cold weather event that, at one point, took us down to -39°C in Cochrane.

I started this essay over a week ago and have been struggling to write something worth reading—for everybody.

After hearing and reading comments by others I thought, these folks don’t really understand what went on when the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) sent out their Emergency Alert stating the risks that may result in rotating electricity shutdown to communities throughout the province.

Initially my old engineering brain clicked and prompted me to explain the technology involved to everyone.  So, I wrote and wrote, then edited and rewrote at least a couple of times.  I couldn’t get down what I thought was necessary.  I even engaged my friend Bryan, who is an electrical engineer and worked on design and commissioning of electrical transmission and distribution systems.  He edited what I had written and did a great job of it, from an engineer’s point of view (meaning me).

When I sat back and looked at the now rather large so called essay, I realised that it wasn’t an essay at all.  It was more like a chapter in an engineering text book.  As interested as I was in getting down all the pertinent ‘facts’, I realised that most of you who read my essays would be staring out the window, glassy eyed, wondering, ‘what the heck is Jack writing about, and why does he think I need to know this stuff?’

Thankfully I’ve come to my senses, well at least the best I can, and have come up with just a few things to say.

  1. The peak load situation occurred because all the normally, intermittent electrical loads, comprised of furnaces and electrical heating located in homes, offices, factories, and other facilities, became constant loads, province wide.  This is a common situation for the folks in the north of Alberta, but it is not common for the large populations of Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary, Lethbridge, and Medicine Hat, all at the same time.

  2. The alarm sent out by the AESO was the right thing to do and the response of Alberta citizens was commendable, to say the least.

As I write this 11 days after the ‘big freeze’, the temperature is close to +7°C at my house and we’re looking forward to a full week of above zero degree (Centigrade) temperatures.

Welcome to Alberta, folks.



In England there is a popular TV program called ‘EastEnders’.  This has been on the BBC since 1985 and is still as popular as ever.  From an electrical system management point of view, that TV program offers a challenge.  What kicks in is the very British habit of brewing tea, which happens when the EastEnders is finished for the night.  At that time, all across the UK, everyone who has been watching the show makes for the kitchen and turns on their kettles to boil water for tea.  On the surface that doesn’t sound like much, but when you realise this will mean 1¾ million kettles coming on line at the same time, about 3 Gigawatts load change will occur within a few minutes.  The electrical grid control operator has to take care of that demand or else generators will start tripping, thus accentuating the problem.

Here is a link to a video showing how that is managed.  It is a cut from a series called

Britain From Above.  This will give you a good idea of how power loads and generation need to be managed—with care.

Our equivalent would occur if, when all of the base generation is operating at full capacity, a 500 megawatt generator tripped off-line.



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Jan 24

It seemed like losing electricity wasn’t happening to everyone But it was very cold so the idea of being cold was more worrying then what was actually happening. Thanks for the explanation and all your research into it.


Jan 24

You kind of described my writing process, Jack! I have a note on my office wall that says, "Be bold not respectful (or qualified) when writing. Emphasis is on the word "qualified". I always feel the need to qualify statements or opinions to give then context or relativity. As for Eastenders... when I lived in the UK, the "boil a brew" problem occurred in Coronation Street, both during the ads (only one set of ads in a 30 minute programme) and at the end. Bear in mind that UK has 240V and kettles are rated at 13amps and that therefore they're drawing over 3kW - twice as much as the average N. American kettle.

First world problems! Reg Gothard

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