Coast to coast, a power grid stretched thin – by Shawn McCarthy and Josh Kerr (Globe and Mail – August 15, 2013)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

OTTAWA AND TORONTO — Faced with rising demand and aging infrastructure, Toronto Hydro is spending $184-million to install a transformer just south of the CN Tower to keep the lights on and air conditioners humming along the city’s lake shore.

It’s the first new transformer station the utility has built since the 1950s, and part of an ongoing investment plan to ensure North America’s fourth-largest city has a reliable power system that can withstand whatever nature or malicious humans might throw at it.

But observers warn that work under way in North America to improve power reliability isn’t addressing all of the most critical problems. Across Canada, electricity companies are spending billions a year to reinforce aging transmission and distribution systems, with the industry estimating it will need nearly $300-billion over all in the next two decades to meet Canada’s demand for reliable power, according to a 2012 report by the Conference Board of Canada. That sort of spending requires an assured rate of return for utilities and other investors footing the bill, and consumers are increasingly reluctant to stump up.

“What it comes down to is a discussion about what is the value of reliability; what is the value of risk reduction,” said Jim Burpee, president of the Canadian Electricity Association. “Our experience now is that you go to most provincial regulators, and you propose investment to get a better grid – a greener or more reliable grid – and there tends to be a negative public reaction to the higher price.”

The system has come a long way since 2003, when a sagging power line – slackened by extreme summer temperatures – touched an overgrown tree in Ohio and caused a blackout across virtually all of Ontario, much of the U.S. Great Lakes region and New York City. A poor response at the utility, FirstEnergy Corp., led to a cascading outage that left 10 million people without electricity. Committees were formed; new regulations were passed and operational lessons absorbed.

Still, even the costliest investment plans and the most rigorous operational standards can prove insufficient.

This summer, Canada has seen seen two extreme weather events that have left major cities without power: Calgary’s catastrophic flooding in June that darkened much of the city, and a flash flood in Toronto in July that resulted in the largest blackout the province has experienced since 2003.

Political leaders across North America are increasingly promising to reinforce power grids and other critical infrastructure against extreme weather. Led by Alberta’s Alison Redford, Canada’s Premiers urged the federal government to allocate funds to mitigate the impact of severe weather. In the U.S., President Barack Obama released a report this month that promised to direct billions of dollars to modernize the grid and make it more efficient and resilient.

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