Power Restored – JIT for Christmas

by | Dec 31, 2013 | Uncategorized

We were one of the around 300,000 houses without power for two days before Christmas. Luckily for us we got ours back just in time (JIT) to dig the turkey out of the snow in the backyard (no freezer being less of a problem due to the rather chilly weather) and put it in the oven.

Increased Vulnerability

The local utility saw the risk of increased vulnerability to climate change coming:

“A Toronto Hydro vulnerability study published last year warned that climate change could result in more severe freezing rain storms, increasing the risk of major power outages. The study, published in September, 2012, says warmer winter temperatures can increase the intensity and quantity of freezing rain and wet snow, which can damage tree branches and overhead wires.”(1)

Despite being aware of the risk Toronto Hydro has resisted burying power lines because of cost concerns.

“Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines said this week that it would be too expensive to bury power lines that are currently above ground in Toronto.”(1)

Of course putting equipment underground (as well as wires) may cause other problems:

“Toronto Hydro is rejecting the idea of burying power lines to avoid a repeat of widespread electricity outages triggered by an ice storm this week, saying the approach is too expensive and would leave the grid vulnerable to other problems. Anthony Haines, the utility’s CEO, said about one-third of their infrastructure is currently buried, but that this costs “seven or eight times” as much. And he raised other concerns. “It wasn’t that long, it was months ago, when we were talking about floods, and impacts when you have electrical systems underneath the ground,” he noted. “So there’s no perfect answer to it. We need to be cognizant of both cost and the reliability of the system.””(2)

Designed-In Resiliency

This raises the concern discussed earlier in this blog about design standards:

“Jim Burpee, president of the Canadian Electricity Association, said the biggest problems utilities face during major ice storms are trees falling onto overhead wires and ice accumulating on wires and poles. “The issue with more frequent ice storms is what standards should you design for going forward,” he said. “In the end, it all becomes a cost-benefit [analysis]. So what’s the cost of the outage in terms of repairs and people not having power, and what do people believe is an acceptable period of time to go without.””(1)

The most severe ice storms (freezing rain of more than 25mm) have occurred 3 times in the last 50 years (annual probability of ~ 6%). Last year this was enough to put this type of event in the medium risk category in which action may be required. Well the risk is now 4 times in the last 50 years, moving it from “5% – Remotely Possible” towards “10% – Possible Occasional”.

In addition, as we have pointed out before, a historical view is not particularly helpful as “it is expected that climate change will initially increase the risk for freezing rain storms”(4) suggesting a revisiting of this risk assessment soon. So future-looking risk should be used not historical risk. This will ensure that resiliency to future higher frequency, greater intensity, and larger impact storms can be designed into infrastructure.

Reluctance to Invest in Resiliency Comes from a Narrow View of Costs

It seems to me as if the utility is taking a very narrow view of the costs, benefits and risks. They are not looking at the sustainable supply chain. They have estimated that the storm will cost Toronto Hydro, and the City (that owns Hydro) $8-10-million (around $1 million per day). This cost may be passed on to either customers through higher rates, the province through the Ontario Disaster and Relief Assistance Program, or perhaps the federal government(3). This cost does not include insurance claims which will be tallied mid-January. The Canadian insurance industry is looking $3 billion in claims for 2013, triple its normal costs. The Toronto house, car, and frozen pipe damage will add to this.

Jan. 7th update: “damage caused by recent rain and ice storms cost the City of Toronto approximately $140 million, far exceeding the $30 million in its extreme weather response fund.” Toronto Board of Trade

The city also seem to be missing the costs not claimed on insurance to home-owners who lost freezers full of food(5), had to spend nights in hotels or with family or friends, or could not travel because of the outage. They also seem to be ignoring costs to business through lost trade and inventory at this critical time for retailers.

The increasing risk in the future should be used rather than just the historical risk. And, after talking to my neighbours I would venture that the willingness to pay for a warm house, lights, and a family Christmas in that house may mean that someone should include this cost, along with the other less direct costs in the revised cost benefit analysis and risk assessment.

(1) Globe and Mail December 27, 2013 “Report warned of increased risk of power outages due to climate change -The 2012 study says warmer weather can increase freezing rain and wet snow, which can damage tree branches and overhead wires” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/toronto-hydro-study-warned-of-increased-risk-of-power-outages-due-to-climate-change/article16118600/

(2) Globe and Mail December 26, 2013 “Toronto Hydro rules out burying power lines as ice-storm recovery drags on – Underground infrastructure is too pricey and vulnerable to flooding, CEO says” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/toronto-hydro-rules-out-burying-power-lines-as-ice-storm-recovery-drags-on/article16109696/

(3) Globe and Mail December 30, 2013″Toronto’s push for ice-storm cleanup cash may reach to Ottawa” – “if its costs meet a “threshold” of $1 per capita, or roughly $13.5-million. It’s not clear if it will, and therefore unclear what each government will pay for”http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/torontos-push-for-ice-storm-cleanup-cash-may-reach-to-ottawa/article16141693/

(4) Toronto Hydro-Electric System Public Infrastructure Engineering Vulnerability Assessment Pilot Case Study http://www.pievc.ca/e/casedocs/TorontoHydro/Toronto_Hydro_PIEVC_Pilot_Case_Study_Final_Report.pdf (Note – includes a good list of climate events and thresholds in Table 3.1 on pp. 17-18 that could be the basis for stress testing)

(5) The poorest families are being compensated with a $100 grocery gift card and individuals will get a $50 with $25,000 comes from corporate donations and $25,00 from the province.


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