Ontarians haven’t learned the need to conserve since 2003 blackout: experts

Gillian Livingston
Maclean’s Magazine
August 12, 2005

In the two years since the great blackout of 2003, Ontarians haven’t learned the valuable lesson of conservation and energy experts warn that rolling blackouts could become a reality if the province’s power supply crunch worsens.

The good news since the blackout is that electricity transmission facilities, their maintenance standards and emergency measures have improved, said Tom Adams, executive director of Energy Probe.

“But the bad news is on the consumption side we have continued to hit records . . . and are on track to just continue” doing that, he said.

With weeks of sweltering weather this summer, Ontarians cranked up their air conditioners, which led to record-breaking demand for power and four pleading calls to conserve from the agency that monitors the province’s power system.

In an effort to avoid rolling blackouts, voltage across the province was cut by five per cent over two consecutive days – a measure that causes brownouts and keeps some equipment from working.

“On the consumption side, we have not turned the corner yet and there’s no sign of it,” Adams said.

With demand nearly outstripping supply at times, “there’s no question that it’s just a matter of time before another blackout happens,” said Dave Martin, energy coordinator with Greenpeace Canada.

“The electricity system in Ontario is stressed to the max.”

It was 4:15 p.m. EDT on a sweaty Aug. 14, 2003 when a fault on a transmission line in Ohio led to a cascading blackout that cut power to the eastern Unites States and all of Ontario.

It ground air and public transportation to a halt. Traffic lights stopped. Cities went dark. Businesses closed for days and workers walked home in the oppressive heat of the summer.

Although the transmission problem was blamed for the blackout, it highlighted the interconnectedness of the power grids between the United States and Ontario and the stress the system faced from ever-rising demand.

Since then Ontario’s hydro maintenance practices have been held up as the standard, said Hydro One spokesman Peter Gregg. Recent audits of utilities in Ontario and the eastern United States have made the entire electricity grid more reliable, he added.

The blackout drove home to people and businesses just how valuable electricity is in our digital world, and how we can’t get along without it.

In the days following, businesses and residents were asked to severely curtail their use of electricity as hydro officials restored power to the strained system.

And people heeded the call, cutting back by about 20 per cent, said Fiona Oliver-Glasford, director of operations with the Canadian Energy Efficiency Alliance.

But several weeks later people went back to their usual habits of blasting the air conditioner and leaving lights and electronics on, and those habits are hard to break, Oliver-Glasford said.

“To change that takes a long time,” but slowly people are starting to make conservation part of their daily lives, she said.

But change requires more government incentives and higher efficiency standards on new appliances and buildings, added Oliver-Glasford.

The province has faced criticism for being slow to act on conservation, the cheapest way to get more power. In May, the government named Peter Love as its chief conservation officer to lead its charge.

Love said he’s working with local hydro utilities on their conservation plans, and this fall will outline other provincewide programs to spur changes to energy consumption habits.

Love said he will also issue a formal call for proposals from big industry to cut 250 megawatts of demand.

The four warnings from the Independent Electricity System Operator, which manages the power system, has kept conservation at the forefront this summer, said Terry Young, the agency’s spokesman.

“The situation we’ve been in this summer has certainly reinforced that thinking (that) we need to change the way we use electricity, we need to improve our efficiency,” Young said. This summer’s electricity bills will emphasize that fact, he added.

“We need to understand that there’s not a limitless supply at times,” he said.

Although Adams doesn’t expect a blackout in the magnitude of 2003, he said he thinks Ontario could face California’s dilemma in 2000 where rolling blackouts become the norm. That’s where power to one region is cut temporarily because demand outstrips supply.

“That the scenario I fear,” Adams said.

Ontario has taken steps to get 9,000 megawatts of new power built in the province, but it will be years before new generating plants are up and running. In the meantime, the government is going ahead with closing its polluting coal plants, which provide about 20 per cent of Ontario’s power.

The province has to move on conservation, improve transmission and get more supply, Adams said. The government needs to get out of regulating prices so that people pay the real cost of electricity, and that will spur companies to come into the market and build more generating capacity, he added.


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