Now Toronto
January 31 – February 6, 2013
Wayne Roberts 

Down to the wire

Toronto city councillors have over $200 million worth of reasons to demand to become masters of their own house when it comes to energy policy.

That’s the price of Toronto Hydro’s planned new Bremner transformer near the Rogers Centre, a proposal now before the Ontario Energy Board.

Hydro says it needs this new station to prevent blackouts, and, given that the local power utility is under the control of an obsolete regulatory structure and agencies beholden to the nuclear industry, maybe it has little choice.

But a new report by the Ontario Clean Air Alliance (OCAA) explains all the reasons why a new transformer is likely unnecessary – and pins its hopes on current Toronto Regional Electricity Supply Plan talks between the Ontario Power Authority and Toronto Hydro to produce a new local power regime.

Will the provincial authority, the Ministry of Energy and the Ontario Energy Board, all of which pull the strings, actually listen?

Here are some details. The Windsor plant at Wellington and John, which now delivers electricity to the downtown core, has dated equipment.

It’s no longer up to the job of receiving the extremely high-voltage power that comes into it and stepping it down to the lower-voltage power that individual buildings are wired to take. Breakdowns are almost inevitable.

Detail two is that Hydro needs to perform the functions Windsor station performs while it’s closed for repairs. Thus the need for the new Bremner plant downtown.

But the OCAA points out that this is just burning money that could go to alt energy inducements, not to mention the fact that the plan requires a third high-power transmission line through Scarborough and east Toronto.

The Alliance’s Jack Gibbons points out that New York City, which uses 56 per cent less electricity per person than Toronto, is a benchmark for what can be done conservation-wise. He says a much cheaper plan could provide backup for Windsor while it’s being repaired.

The problem, of course, is that it’s OPA that decides what conservation plans Toronto Hydro can undertake, and also whether the local authority can sponsor the kind of local energy production that undercuts production elsewhere. The OPA, after all, deals with both production and conservation, and producers, especially in giant nuclear plants, usually oppose promoting less energy use.

Giving OPA authority over Toronto is like putting weight loss programs under the care of the people who designed fast food super-sizing.

Since the city is the sole owner of Toronto Hydro and has three high-profile councillors on its board, the means are at hand to start a quiet revolution to put political power in the hands of the people who have to pay the energy bills. Toronto Hydro is responsible for distributing fully 18 per cent of the province’s electrical load. Both the utility and its 700,000 customers are big enough to make their own decisions.

In the case of Bremner, the utility says wiring is the issue and that more hookups are needed no matter how much power is used. (Toronto Hydro reps can’t address the Bremner issue because it is before the OEB.)

Gibbons disagrees. More customers, he says, could be served without wiring into a big system if local neighbours or buildings were empowered to produce their own energy, and if usage went down.

He proposes encouraging solar panels (particularly useful during peak air-con periods), expanded use of gas-fired heaters that co-generate electricity, like at the Senator David Croll Apartments on Bloor, and more deep-lake-water cooling and geo-thermal projects.

But his org’s report also points out that all the cash for Toronto Hydro’s conservation programs is provided by the OPA, which actually rewards the local utility for under-spending on its conservation programs.

Imaginative local consulting engineer Greg Allen tells me he believes our current energy centralization (think nuclear) is as much of a dodo as centralized broadcasting in the era of the internet.

Allen is fresh from a contract with HOK Group for which he designed energy systems for a large hospital that will cut its electrical load in half. His vision sees neighbourhood utilities putting solar panels atop green roofs on apartments or above schools, and adapting furnaces to burn “natural gas” from rotting food scraps to combine heat and electricity at large housing projects.

What’s painted Toronto Hydro into a corner is too many cooks with too much power to say no to those options. Until the obstacle of outside control is removed, there’s no alternative to ultra-expensive central energy production. Which politicians will start a campaign for Toronto’s right to home rule in energy?