He fixed California's power grid for Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's worried about the energy transition

Former Albertan says promises made at COP28 bring risk of higher costs and lower reliability. ‘I’m not saying don’t do it, but do it right’

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This is a conversation series by Donna Kennedy-Glans, a writer and former Alberta cabinet minister, featuring newsmakers and intriguing personalities.

Former Albertan Yakout Mansour moved to California two decades ago when he was recruited to run the state’s power grid under then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The way he tells it, it sounds like the government policy-makers had latched onto big changes in the electricity system, not fully understanding the consequences, and he was brought in to fix the fallout.

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“I was lucky,” Mansour says, choosing his words carefully, “I did not work for the governor, but I had to work with the governor.”

He pauses, charmingly. “Two months after I came to California, we became close friends … The system, everyone, was ready for change.”

Schwarzenegger later ordered the California electrical system to find 33 per cent of its needs from renewables, and the lessons of that moment are now useful in the wake of COP28 in Dubai. Leaders at the summit this week promised to transition away from fossil fuels by 2050 and triple renewable energy generating capacity by 2030.

Call me an overly pragmatic farmer’s daughter, but I’m concerned with how we go about keeping these promises and worry about the consequences if we don’t do this wisely. So I called Mansour, 75 and now retired in California. Although we’ve never met, I was an Alberta politician responsible for electricity and renewables at a time when Mansour was on the board of TransAlta, one of the province’s largest energy utilities, so we’re familiar with each other.

Mansour, an engineer with hands-on experience designing and operating power grids in places as diverse as Egypt, Alberta, British Columbia and California, hasn’t been paying much attention to what’s been unfolding in Dubai these past few weeks. But he understands the nitty gritty of electricity systems and knows what happens when things go wrong.

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That’s how he ended up in California 20 years ago, when the state’s power grid was in crisis — there were blackouts and insolvent utilities — and he was recruited to fix the mess.

“At that time, there are companies that went bankrupt. Enron went bankrupt, the top people were fired and California went out globally to search for a person to head the California Independent System Operator — to restructure and redesign the market, to do what needs to be done to fix it up,” Mansour explains.

“And I’m telling you,” he continues, with a chuckle, “everyone — politicians, policy-makers, utilities — had open arms and said, just lead and tell us what we need to do to get things right.”

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Mansour’s first project was working on the Luxor Dam. “Aswan was a place more than a thousand kilometres away from Alexandria and a very small place; no one (from engineering school) wanted to go there,” he explains. “I found it was the most fascinating place to learn first-hand.”

In 1975, he immigrated to Canada, sailed through graduate studies in engineering at the University of Calgary, and was recruited by Monenco Engineering to help with the design of power systems for Syncrude and other oil sands investors. Soon enough, though, he fled for the warmer climes of BC Hydro.

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“Calgary is so dear to me, but too cold for an Egyptian,” laughs Mansour, who “got all the way to vice-president of operations.”

The president of BC Hydro put him in charge of energy trading in the mid 1990s when electricity markets were being deregulated. “I really had no idea what he (the president) was talking about. I’m a technical person and he’s talking about markets.” But Mansour went on to build the expertise that ultimately attracted California when its deregulated electricity market crashed.

Treating electricity as a commodity — deregulation — is very tough. There were no books written about it. It had to be trial and error.

Former Albertan Yakout Mansour

Fast forward two decades, and now we’re clamouring to accelerate the integration of renewables into electricity grids already stressed by the weight of legal claims and wildfires. “Should we expect more blackouts?” I dare to ask.

“Absolutely,” Mansour responds, “If we don’t do it right. We have to look at the costs and the reliability. I can do anything by throwing money at it; tell me what you want, but what’s the cost?

“Imagine that when you talk about the electricity industry, imagine yourself sitting on a stool with three legs,” Mansour continues. “As long as the three legs are equal in length, you are steady. If any of those three legs becomes too long or too short, you will fall.”

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He explains his metaphor, starting with leg one: cost. The public wasn’t comfortable with regulators rubber-stamping costs charged by utilities;  the government reaction was deregulation. “Treating electricity as a commodity — deregulation — is very tough,” he attests. “There were no books written about it. It had to be trial and error.”

Leg two: reliability. Vulnerabilities were exposed after significant blackouts, including the 2003 blackout in the northeast. Mansour was a lead investigator responsible for investigating the grid failures and identifying solutions. “There was no national responsibility for grid reliability in Canada or the U.S.,” he says; the blackouts led to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) getting responsibility for standards and audits to assure reliability of the U.S. grid. Canadian utilities agreed to follow the same rules.

Leg three: the environment. “Gas is the new coal and we’ll do everything with wind and solar,” Mansour quips. “It’s become the flavour of the day for any politician who wants to get voted in.” But he worries we’re failing to consider the consequences for the other two legs of the stool: cost and reliability.

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Mansour isn’t just speculating; his California experience was a dress rehearsal for this moment. At the time, Mansour told a New York Times reporter that a massive shift to renewable energy brings huge benefits, but also challenges. “The benefits are understood; the challenges are way understated,” he said. Grid experts were often reticent expressing their concerns, he said, because when they speak up, they are perceived as not being supportive of renewables.

In 2023, Mansour wants us to know that costs will be higher and reliability will be compromised if we don’t do it right.

“I’m not saying don’t do it,” he concludes, “but do it right.”

Donna Kennedy-Glans is active in the energy business and a multi-generational family farm. Her latest book is Teaching the Dinosaur to Dance: Moving Beyond Business as Usual (2022).

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