Careless environmental ideology was a root cause of the blackout that cut off power to tens of thousands of Toronto homes, businesses, and institutions for several hours during rush hour on Monday this week.
Although a full technical report on the event is not yet available, it is clear that some transformer station equipment at the Manby transformer station in west Toronto failed. Transmission planning experts have long identified a failure at Manby as a known risk to the reliability of Toronto’s electricity supply. Three years ago, the Ontario Power Authority published a transmission plan for the province that included a detailed scenario analysis for a failure at Manby almost identical to Monday’s event. Unfortunately, that transmission plan got shelved, replaced by government directives to support more wind and solar generators.
Transmission experts have also long recognized that the power transmission network upon which Toronto depends is the most vulnerable to blackouts of the type experienced on Monday of any major financial centre in North America. Toronto’s special weakness is its lack of local transmission system redundancy.
The transmission system serving downtown Toronto is operated at its limit, with no capacity to spare. As a direct result, maintenance schedules are squeezed or eliminated, a factor that may well have played a role in initiating the event. The ability of grid operators to transfer load from one transmission path to another in the event of failures is severely limited, a factor that directly determined the scale and duration of the blackout. The large number of customers blacked out and the duration of blackout was a function of the system’s flawed design.
Environmentalists, including the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, the David Suzuki Foundation, World Wildlife Foundation Canada, Peter Tabuns of the Ontario NDP and Toronto Councillor Paula Fletcher, have played leading roles in blocking the development of another transmission line into the city’s core.
Many environmental organizations, working with the Ontario government’s Trillium Foundation (which distributes the government’s gambling profits), the Ontario Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure and others formed an umbrella group in 2007 called Transforming Toronto. The new group was developed specifically to oppose a new high-voltage transmission line into Toronto. In Ontario’s highly politicized electricity policy environment, affected electric utilities and agencies have not challenged Transforming Toronto’s fluffy assertions that transmission reinforcement is not needed.
For example, the Ontario Clean Air Alliance dimly claimed in a recent press release that natural gas-fired co-generation or combined heat and power development in the city would eliminate the need for another transmission line into the city. OCAA ignores the grid incompatibility problem between intermittent wind power, which OCAA also advocates, and cogeneration power plants, whose output is normally not suited for continuous grid control. As Denmark’s power system proves, piling co-generation on top of wind power exacerbates excess power supply problems.
Ontario ratepayers are already being punished by excess supplies of intermittent and non-controllable power generation.
OCAA’s cogeneration opinions also ignore the tendency for urban co-generation facilities to be used least during peak demand periods in summer, providing the least transmission relief when we need it most.
As dimly, many environmental organizations have been claiming that wind power developed offshore from Toronto would help eliminate the need for real transmission reinforcement. Ontario’s actual wind power experience proves that wind power is least reliable during summer peak demand periods.
On the basis of their theories, these environmentalists have launched a sophisticated, provincial government-backed lobbying campaign to restrict any transmission developments within Toronto to projects that would allow local generation developments to connect with the grid, but to the exclusion of efforts to build the relief line that could have limited or even eliminated Monday’s blackout.
As far back as 2007, then Energy Minister Dwight Duncan took the environmentalists’ bait hook, line and sinker, opposing a relief transmission line as an option to help secure Toronto’s electricity supply.
Environmentalists have also diverted conservation efforts away from addressing peak demand, pushing instead conservation targets that focus on energy savings throughout the year. The Ontario government’s conservation targets have been strongly influenced by this thinking.
The consequence of these political machinations is that, except for a few projects, almost all of the transmission developments underway in Ontario are being guided by political directives and are designed to serve generators, primarily wind and solar, much of which is slated for development in remote areas. From a ratepayer perspective, the best we can hope for in the current policy environment is that the most remote transmission projects and the projects that connect the largest amounts of super-costly solar power move ahead very slowly.
But that doesn’t keep the lights on in Toronto.
Tom Adams is a Toronto-based energy consultant.
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