March 23, 2005
Although the spark that set off that calamity didn’t occur in Ontario, we were the hardest hit because our power system had been weakened by neglect. It has only gotten worse in the last two years. The stage is set for another massive blackout, this time made in Ontario. Parts of our power transmission and distribution networks are so dilapidated, a strong wind could knock out some of our electricity lifelines.
Much of the high voltage system Ontario’s consumers depend on today was built before the Second World War and should have been replaced a generation ago. In fact, some transmission system components predate the end of First World War.
The deplorable state of our power system, and its potential danger to us, is well known to the power authorities. Just before its 1997 financial collapse, Ontario Hydro prepared an internal report, called “Transmission Network Asset Condition Assessment,” warning starkly:
As the condition of these lines is allowed to deteriorate, beyond their useful life, without any remedy, the exposure to these safety hazards will increase and public safety will be compromised.
This report proved to be prophetic. Many of the Hydro towers that collapsed during the 1998 ice storm were built in the 1920s. Had our system been properly maintained all along, Ontarians would have been spared much of the extreme hardships from that calamity, too.
Since Ontario Hydro conducted its internal report, Ontario’s electricity regulator, the Ontario Energy Board, has failed to take needed action. While the Board in 1999 ordered Ontario Hydro’s successor, Hydro One, to immediately develop a plan to restore the transmission system, the regulator never followed up. Our transmission system continues to age. It’s now 57 years old on average.
How could Ontario Hydro, Hydro One, and the provincial government allow our transmission system to deteriorate on such a vast scale? For decades, Ontario Hydro’s political appointees diverted money that should have been spent on routine refurbishment to grandiose nuclear and coal projects.
Similar problems haunt Ontario at the local level, where much of the local utilities’ infrastructure is inefficient and unsafe – including in Toronto, the province’s wealthiest city. Many municipalities rely on obsolete low-voltage systems that increase line losses arising from electrical resistance, particularly in summer, during the air conditioning season when Ontario’s generation capacity is most severely stressed. If extreme temperatures come in the coming few months, our system may not be able to bear it.
Ontario must make every reasonable effort to avoid another Great Blackout – as you’ll recall, not only were our homes and businesses in jeopardy but so, too, was our health care system and our water supply – Toronto and other areas had all but run out of drinking water, despite the rationing that was taking place.
To catch up for years of neglect, we need a crash program to rehabilitate our transmission system. Earlier this month, Energy Probe submitted a report (available at www.energyprobe.org) highlighting the need for urgent action to Premier Dalton McGuinty and Energy Minister Dwight Duncan. We invite you to write to them as well – these leaders bear responsibility for ensuring our power system’s reliability. Ask them why they are not keeping our grids up to date and if you’re unhappy with their answers, please forward them to me. Together, we’ll keep our officials accountable and have the secure energy system Ontarians deserve.