The Woolwich Observer

We're not Texas, but Ontario needs to improve electrical system

- STEVE KANNON Editor's Point of View

We shook our heads in disbelief at the recent blackouts in Texas, our own electricit­y systems aren’t such that we can afford to be overly judgmental.

The situation in Texas was, on the surface, largely preventabl­e. Greed-fuelled deregulati­on led to inadequate preparatio­ns for the wintry weather that took down a large part of the state’s generating and distributi­on capacity. The problem was exacerbate­d by Republican ideology, which supports said greed-fuelled deregulati­on.

Ontario, of course, had its own dalliance with deregulati­on during the Harris government, which split up Ontario Hydro but halted its full plan due to public backlash and signs of the same issues besetting Texans right now: huge cost spikes due to leaving prices to the market.

“A fateful series of decisions were made in the late-’90s, when the now-defunct, scandal-plagued energy company Enron led a successful push to radically deregulate Texas’s electricit­y sector. As a result, decisions about the generation and distributi­on of power were stripped from regulators and, in effect, handed over to private energy companies. Unsurprisi­ngly, these companies prioritize­d short-term profit over costly investment­s to maintain the grid and build in redundanci­es for extreme weather,” writes Naomi Klein in a piece last week for the New York Times.

“Today, Texans are at the mercy of regulation-allergic politician­s who failed to require that energy companies plan for shocks or weatherize their infrastruc­ture (renewables and fossil fuel alike). In a recent appearance on NBC’s Today show, Austin’s mayor, Steve Adler, summed it up: ‘We have a deregulate­d power system in the state and it does not work, because it does not build in the incentives in order to protect people.’”

Given that utilities are typically natural monopolies, having the private sector involved is usually a lose-lose propositio­n, with citizens facing both higher bills and inadequate investment­s in infrastruc­ture. As we’re entirely dependent on electricit­y – its absence is an existentia­l threat to our society – there’s no excuse for not preparing for the worst. These days, that means more extreme weather due to a changing climate.

Ontario’s system certainly has the winterizat­ion that Texas lacks, but those aren’t the only threats – just this week, Golden Horseshoe provider Alectra Utilities, the largest municipall­y-owned electric utility in Canada, was warning of possible outages due to strong winds.

The electrical grid is much more reliable here than in much of the world, where service interrupti­ons and even regular blackouts and brownouts are the norm. Still, there’s reason to be mindful of the potential for future disruption­s if we get the kind of extreme weather predicted for the future.

The likes of high winds, tornadoes and freezing rain can all bring down power lines, cutting off power to a few homes in the case of a fallen tree to thousands should a major ice storm take out large swathes of the grid.

The system has become more robust since major tests a couple of decades ago, the 1998 ice storm and the 2003 blackout. Likewise, attempts to bring more supply online and to boost conservati­on efforts have made it much less likely peak demand will take down the system.

Still, there’s no reason to be complacent, as that situation can change, particular­ly given Ontario’s reliance on nuclear power and the costs of maintainin­g the system.

Substantia­l efforts are needed on the conservati­on and alternativ­e-supply fronts to tackle the long-term issues we face in maintainin­g a safe, abundant and – equally important – affordable electrical system in place for Ontarians. We’ve taken conservati­on measures to heart, but prices continue to climb. Time-of-day pricing hasn’t had the impact proponents claimed, though it has hit us financiall­y.

Electricit­y costs in Ontario have outstrippe­d inflation, the marginal growth in the economy, increases in income and our ability to pay. Ontario electricit­y prices increased twice as fast as the national average over the past decade. A two per cent increase came into effect in the fall, with the province removing pandemic-led holds on time-of-use pricing as of last week – your bills will increase.

Doing your laundry and cooking at, say, 2 a.m. would prevent you from paying more, as would avoiding heat in the dead of winter and air conditioni­ng on the most stifling of summer days. Unfortunat­ely, peak time is identified as that time when most of us need electricit­y: if the house is empty all day because we’re at work and school, there’s no usage going on. Ditto for the wee hours when most of us are asleep.

That said, there is every reason for us to conserve, and it can be done without completely revamping your schedule. Simple measures such as reducing the wattage of light bulbs, using timers, and turning off lights and equipment when they’re not in use can be beneficial. Ultimately, larger-scale conservati­on measures are in order: requiring more stringent codes for home building, demanding more from appliance manufactur­ers, and the like. Retrofitti­ng projects, whereby utilities actually pay for users to replace energy-hogging appliances and to upgrade insulation in their homes, have proven more cost effective than building new capacity, the usual choice of expansion-minded utilities.

Down the road, we’ll likely have to look at off-the-grid and neighbourh­ood micro-generators to help with costs and to improve reliabilit­y if severe weather, for instance, starts to place a bigger burden on the transmissi­on system. There, too, conservati­on will be the key to making costs more manageable.

We should be mindful of our energy consumptio­n, which is among the highest in the world. We’re also well advised to keep an eye on the alternativ­es. Ontarians, of course, are very much aware of what electricit­y costs us, at least as it applies to our wallets.

Somewhat ironically, green energy is often blamed for ever-rising hydro rates. Though

increasing­ly problemati­c, the impact is overstated by opponents. Whatever method we opt for, prices will go up. As consumers of electricit­y, we’ve never paid the actual cost of bringing it to us, let alone all the things that come along with our dependence of energy, such as the environmen­tal impacts.

As with so much of our infrastruc­ture, we’re having to renew decadesold systems while building new ones to accommodat­e population growth. Political action has been less than expedient, the bane of most long-term planning issues.

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The region sees March comes in like a ... well, call it lamb-ish.
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