SaskEnergy: Serving a Vast and Diverse Province with a Reliable Energy Supply

On a brilliant, frigid winter day in Saskatchewan, the credo of SaskEnergy rings hard and true: to deliver safe, reliable and affordable natural gas to the benefit of its customers and the province. When it’s -40°C, there’s no room for error when it comes to heating homes and keeping businesses and industry running.

The sheer land mass is one of the Crown corporation’s biggest obstacles as a utility. With just over 400,000 customers spread across 652,000 square kilometres, SaskEnergy is unique among its peers. “We are the most geographically challenged gas utility because of the vast number of kilometers versus people,” says Ken From, SaskEnergy president and chief executive officer. “And Saskatchewan’s climate is rather severe, going from -40°C to +40°C, winter to summer. Having a reliable source of energy is paramount to living here and having businesses here. The reliability of natural gas is extremely high, it is 99.9 per cent reliable, and that is why it is such an important service.”

Natural gas consumption in the province has broken record highs four winters in a row, but summers also have been warmer, pushing up energy demand to power air conditioning, for residents and industries. Year round, the province’s industrial demand for natural gas is strong: Saskatchewan is the world’s largest potash producer and the second largest uranium producer, both energy-intense industries. Saskatchewan is also the second largest producer of crude oil in Canada, producing 450,000 barrels per day in 2016, and uses growing amounts of natural gas in enhanced oil recovery projects.

Wheat

“Having a reliable source of energy is paramount to living here and having businesses here.” Image courtesy of SaskEnergy

Agricultural processes and power generation also demand high volumes and reliable sources of natural gas to run, making the energy source an integral part of the province’s economy, notes From. “Without natural gas, those things can’t exist in the quantity and quality the world demands.”

Servicing Remote Communities

SaskEnergy actively participates in the gas market, buying and selling natural gas, providing transportation from points in Saskatchewan and Alberta to points in the province, and operating natural gas storage caverns. The utility employs about 1,050 people on a full time equivalent basis, and hires seasonal contractors as needed.

As well as its urban locations, SaskEnergy operates 55 field sites around the province. “For safety reasons, our target is to have someone within an hour’s drive of the customer,” says From. “What that means is sometimes having a two-person team that can drive out. And that can be another big challenge, hiring and retaining people in remote areas. In some cases, there’s no plumbing or heating company nearby so we have to be the ones customers go to for any kind of emergency response, too.”

One way to meet the needs of smaller communities is to recruit locally, and have training programs, such as a two-year technician qualifying program, centred at the utility’s training centre in Saskatoon. Tradespeople like plumbers and electricians can jump the queue to enter an advanced program, as part of an effort to service those hard-to-fill rural positions. The utility also partners with the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Regina and several First Nations universities and colleges, such as the Gabriel Dumont Institute and the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology.

Accessing Technology

Image courtesy of SaskEnergy

Given the geography of the province and the number of smaller, rural communities, timely adaptation of technology is key to meeting demand on a reliable basis. The use of remote meter reading has saved time and effort for the utility through increased accuracy and frequency of readings. The technology also helps with certain safety issues as it can detect anomalies at the residential level quickly and proactively, From notes.

More efficient and stronger compressors have increased capacity for the utility’s 81,000 kilometre distribution system, while smart pigs, tools that inspect pipeline integrity from inside the pipe, have boosted safety. Technology around geographical information systems (GIS) also has helped the utility become more efficient as GIS can pinpoint where buried infrastructure is located, provides details such as how many fittings are on the pipe, and shows it on a map, rather than as a numbered digital location – which makes it quick for crews to find.

“One way to meet the needs of smaller communities is to recruit locally, and have training programs, such as a two-year technician qualifying program, centred at the utility’s training centre in Saskatoon.”

Image courtesy of SaskEnergy

SaskEnergy continues to effectively meet a range of challenges, including of the growing need to import supply, dealing with aging networks, and evolving regulations. Maintaining pipeline integrity is a prime focus for SaskEnergy, demanding a growing portion of the utility’s capital budget each year. Spending on system integrity will have increased to a projected $51.3 million this year from $7 million in 2008, and is expected to rise to $55.6 million in 2018-19 as the province’s population and industrial demand continue their steady growth.

As cities grow, and acreages are annexed, existing infrastructure that once was outside of town is now inside city limits. Planned infrastructure investments will focus on expanding and moving pipeline infrastructure away from developments, particularly in the two large urban centres of Saskatoon and Regina, From says.

“SaskEnergy continues to effectively meet a range of challenges, including the growing need to import supply, dealing with aging networks, and evolving regulations.”

Image courtesy of SaskEnergy

Industry Challenges

Natural gas is an affordable energy choice for customers. But, one of the biggest challenges facing the natural gas industry today is continued low commodity prices, which are compounded by diminishing market access, From notes. When trying to get pipelines built, getting the public to understand the environmental as well as economic benefits of natural gas can be difficult in jurisdictions that don’t have a full chain of activity: the “well head to burner tip” knowledge Saskatchewan has. “There is a very different take on regulations and how they affect things here versus other parts of the country,” From says. “We are a producer of the energy, a lot of residents work in the industry as well, so they understand the value of the industry and how we need to move forward.”

“Natural gas is an affordable energy choice for customers.”

As a member of the Canadian Gas Association, the utility collaborates with other Canadian natural gas utilities, as well as associations such as the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, and sees the benefits of how industry has been leveraging resources to drive clean technology innovation. From would like to see more consistency across the country on regulatory developments and environmental policies.

“It’s important people understand where energy comes from, how it is produced, and how it is distributed, before it starts heating their home, heating their water, powering their appliance, or fueling their car, he says. “We need to work better to get that message out there, about natural gas being an affordable, safe, reliable and clean source of energy.”

Dina O’Meara has been covering Canadian energy issues for almost 20 years.