Power to the People — Ontario Ice Storm Edition

We woke up Thursday morning to find that the projected freezing rain did materialize and everything had a thick coating. The old willow on our shore lost a couple of big branches and will probably have to be removed in the Spring. Power went out while we were having our coffee and was off for most of the day. Service came back in the evening but was pretty ragged overnight until going off again around 6am for another five hours.  No power means no water, no heat, no phone service, etc.  And no way to check outage status on the Internet. Our standby generator got a good workout with probably more to come.

One of our neighbors is a retired Hydro worker who mentioned that the reason power interruptions are getting worse is that Hydro as a policy has offloaded their line maintenance to contractors — who are supposed to drop everything and come running when there is a disaster. This made me think of Toronto Hydro and the news that they abruptly cancelled a program of upgrades and laid off 1,000 contractors — after telling them that there was work for years.

At the same time we read about staff increases in the various power and distribution companies as partial justification for the relentless cost increases we are all asked to absorb. And of course the continued program of wind farm buildouts that follows from an auditor report that most of the premium power being bought from these cronies is wasted. And let us not forget that the Enron designed restructuring of the Ontario power market multiplied the number of business entities (and the pricy senior positions they contain) while simultaneously obfuscating any accountability relationships to businesses and consumers.  The mantra all along has been that by introducing a ‘modern’ market-driven mechanism power should become more available and affordable.  But the reality seems to be that we are following the Enron-California model where power becomes much more expensive and less reliable.  Politics (or more specifically failed ideologies) rather than sound engineering is driving the process. Curious. I wonder if anyone has succeeded in delivering on the promise?

And of course while the power producer market became increasingly Balkanized the grid itself is more tightly integrated. So during the storm the wind farm on Wolfe Island should have been producing power — but it supplies the grid, not the local area.  So Wolfe went dark. As did a large chunk of eastern Ontario between Belleville and Gananoque.  But the issues are not publicly reported and there appears to be no followup on preventing these issues again — so just another broken branch hammered into another hole in the dike.

The 2004 blackout report made fascinating reading — from the original maintenance reductions that caused the initial line break to the monitoring equipment that was unaccountably offline to the communications and management issues between the multiple operating companies that compounded and expanded the failure.  The report concluded that part of the problem was the complexity of the grid and the potential interactions that must be managed exceed the capability of the human and automatic management processes.  It is just too complex to manage effectively.

One thing I learned in my years of contingency planning consulting is that  loosely interconnected systems are pretty fault-resilient. This is quite different from the massive centralized systems that attempt to control everything and because of the complexity of their interactions are difficult to replicate or recover. Even the approach to alternate energy is done in a centralized manner — rather than producing power for local use and drawing from the grid to top up, the big solar and wind plants feed directly into the central grid. This maximizes the loads on the central grid rather than minimizing it as a more distributed approach might produce.  I think that Ontario is moving from a collection of local power systems into a huge, brittle structure — looks like the standby generator is going to get a lot more work.

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