Much of the eastern seaboard of the U.S. is only now recovering from Hurricane Sandy's electrical outage, a hydro failure that also left 45,000 here powerless for several days.
A climatic event like this is a reminder of how fragile the infrastructure that supports our way of life actually is. A report released this week by the Toronto Environment Office deepens the unease. The city, it says, will face more extreme weather events in the coming decades.
Torontonians generally take our electrical grid for granted, as they do our other infrastructure. But years of under-investment in our power network means it's way past its useful life, suggesting we look forward to more and longer outages.
Recently the Ontario Energy Board rejected the request of Toronto Hydro, an independent city-run corporation, for an average $5-per-household monthly increase to continue to ramp up repairs to the city's network of hydro lines. This decision is reminiscent of the rate cuts, which were also political, in the 90s and more recently, which limit repair budgets locally and provincially.
The requested increase was to fund $1.5 billion worth of improvements needed to prevent electrical failures, 40 per cent of which are a result of faulty old equipment.
The two parts of the city most affected are the downtown and Scarborough. The board's refusal to allow the increase spells trouble ahead for Toronto Hydro, which delivers 18 per cent of the province's energy to over 700,000 customers. The decision means our local hydro provider could be down 65 per cent in its capital budget this year.
The city's grid relies on components that are, in many cases, over 50 years old, like transformers (boxes on poles) and transmission and distribution substations, not to mention the computer system maintaining the network.
Another challenge is getting power from where it is generated to where it is needed. Unfortunately, most of our hydro is produced well outside the urban limits, despite the feed-in tariffs that encourage people to install solar panels (the network only allows this in particular areas) or the new Hearn natural gas plant in the port lands. Instead, the local network takes power from Ontario Hydro and transforms its high-voltage energy into electricity safely usable by consumers.
While most large cities have several connections to the major transmission grid, T.O. has only two. The network needs strengthening, but this is expensive because we can't bring overhead high-voltage wires into the city. As a consequence, Hydro One and Toronto Hydro have started to construct a $115-million 2.4 km tunnel to upgrade transmission cables and bring more electricity to midtown from the east end.
This, however, will not solve the problem. Yes, hydro use is down at the moment. Due to a mixture of conservation and the economic downturn, today's power use is actually 10 per cent less than at the height of the early 2000s.
Still, new condos and office buildings are putting demands on our local network in ways we haven't seen, particularly at peak periods in our increasingly hot summers when the air conditioners go on. Consider, as well, that if only a fraction of the predicted number of electric cars actually hit the road, the demand would overload the system.
The long-term issue of developing new green energy sources remains, as does the deepening of conservation strategies, but the short-term problem is getting the power from high-voltage lines to your house.
Upgrading the network costs billions of dollars, takes a lot of time and provides many high-skilled jobs. Last year Toronto Hydro invested over $430 million, almost double what it was several years ago. This will have to be increased, particularly in order to allow small green energy projects to feed into the grid and reduce pressure on the system.
When the Ontario Energy Board refused the increase request, it seemed like politics had once again trumped good management. Sure, no one wants to pay more for electricity, and while rates have been rising, they still remain lower than in most of the continent - with the exception of Quebec, whose Hydro-Québec has made smart investments and uses exports to subsidize already cheap northern hydroelectricity.
Toronto Hydro needs to be allowed to raise enough revenue to modernize. Without a new computerized smart grid, there can't be efficient metering and demand control, nor can the corporation manage the input from solar and wind projects.
Increasingly, we need to consider infrastructure installed 50 to 100 hundred years ago designed for a much smaller city with very different needs. The Energy Board should set aside its fears of political fallout from rate increases and ensure the city gets the electrical system of the future - not the past.
THE BIG POWER PLAYERS
ONTARIO ENERGY BOARD Regulates natural gas and electricity utilities in the province, setting rates and licensing participants.
ONTARIO POWER GENERATION The government of Ontario is the sole shareholder of this electricity company.
HYDRO ONE A Crown corporation that delivers electricity through its transmission system.
TORONTO HYDRO Distributes local power in the city of Toronto.