Blackout Exposes Ontario's Dependency on Imported Power

THERE are few things as mournful as a darkened, silent midway. So when the Canadian National Exhibition opened last week, Toronto as a whole took heart. The historic Aug.

Blackout Exposes Ontario's Dependency on Imported Power

THERE are few things as mournful as a darkened, silent midway. So when the Canadian National Exhibition opened last week, Toronto as a whole took heart. The historic Aug. 14 blackout had delayed the launch of the venerable Ex by four days, and when the Kamikaze finally began spinning, it seemed like a sign. "It shows that we've persevered," said Kevin Dalby, pausing beside a cotton-candy stand with his three-year-old daughter, Katherine. "We've survived the blackout."

So far. Fear of the dark remains a potent force in Ontario these days - even with the lights on. Hydro officials and political leaders warned for days of rolling blackouts should consumers fail to conserve during the system's fragile reboot. And vacuuming a car went from being a chore to a dangerous luxury: you never knew when some self-appointed electricity cop, or eagle-eyed TV crew, might show up to lecture you. Bob Runciman, the province's public safety and security minister, actually suggested prosecuting people who failed to conserve during future outages. "I think there's some coaxing needed," he said.

Draconian measures aside, the angst is serving a purpose of sorts, focusing long overdue attention on a system that quite plainly flopped, casting 50 million Canadians and Americans into darkness. The scale of the outage left many people queasy. So, too, did Ontario's long plod back to full power: while the affected states largely regained generating capacity within 24 hours, communities north of the border were forced into conservation mode, dimming their lights and forgoing air conditioning for all but the most stifling weather. The reason? Eight of the province's 12 operational NUCLEAR reactors had gone into full shutdown after the stoppage, rather than "idling" in a standby status that would permit a quick return to production.

By week's end, the eight reactors were back on-line. Still, the long, hot hours waiting for full power had added a sense of urgency to investigations of the incident. Early signs pointed at a coal-fired power plant near Cleveland, which went off-line at about 1:30 p.m. the day of the outage. Soon after, a series of nearby transmission lines went down, sucking away power throughout the Lake Erie region and effectively reversing the flow of current. That fluctuation, in turn, set off computerized safety mechanisms in generating stations elsewhere and the chain reaction was on: at 4:11 p.m. shutdowns spread at lightning speed throughout the eastern seaboard, darkening town after town, county after county.

This "cascading" effect will be the prime focus of a joint Canada-U.S. task force looking into the blackout. Why, for instance, did alarm mechanisms fail to alert the Ohio operator in time to uncouple that system from the rest of the grid? How did authorities in Ontario respond to ominous-looking voltage fluctuations earlier in the day, which were reported by at least two different agencies monitoring the grid? "We want to have a thorough understanding of what happened," said Herb Dhaliwal, the federal natural resources minister. "Reliability of the system is paramount."

The outage has also exposed Ontario's growing dependency on imported power. Before the blackout, the province barely produced the 25,000 megawatts typically needed on a hot day. Mid-week, with temperatures climbing to 32° C, the system could generate only 21,400 megawatts during peak hours. Ontario was forced back to the import well, arranging 1,100 megawatts of power to be shipped from Quebec and New York.

The shortfall has some critics calling for a massive investment in domestic power generation: more small, local natural-gas-powered plants, and billions in upgrades to nuclear facilities. But others fear a large supply increase will only spur consumption, which has already climbed 18 per cent in the last decade. "Increasing capacity is not the whole answer," said Peter Love, executive director of the Toronto-based Canadian Energy Efficiency Alliance. "Allowing consumption and demand to increase without control is, in my view, really quite silly." Love's industry-supported group is among those calling for efficiency incentives, such as a recent California program giving customers a further 20-per-cent break on their power bills if they cut usage by 20 per cent. But it also argues that hydro companies need the ability to pass on the costs of reinvestment to the consumer - especially as the industry inches toward privatization. That means an end to rate caps, like the 4.3 cents per kilowatt hour currently in effect in Ontario.

Either way, the outlook calls for tougher times, with no guarantee against future shortages. Back at the CNE, Edwina Doddington tried to be upbeat as she ushered her sons Bill, 10, and Ben, 12, into the air-conditioned confines of the National Trade Centre. The family had made the 45-minute drive from Milton, despite fears that another outage would strand them. To their surprise, they were greeted by uncharacteristically polite carnies. "I guess they have to be if they want to make up for the money they lost during the blackout," Doddington observed.

Not much of a silver lining, to be sure. But any good news is welcome in post-blackout Ontario. And it's a lot better than thinking about the electrical storm ahead.

See also: ELECTRIC POWER; ELECTRIC POWER GENERATION; ELECTRIC POWER TRANSMISSION

Maclean's September 1, 2003