The Toronto Star 
January 3, 2013
John Spears

Downtown Toronto could face major blackout without new Bremner transformer station

An equipment failure at a key hydro station in the city core could cut power in Toronto’s financial district for “days, possibly weeks,” Toronto Hydro says.

That’s why it needs to spend $195 million to build the new Bremner transformer station near the Rogers Centre, the company argues in filings to the Ontario Energy Board.

But critics say there’s a better solution that includes curbing power consumption in the city core, along with constructing small, efficient power stations producing electricity right where it’s needed.

The Ontario Energy Board will listen to the arguments in the coming weeks, though no date has yet been set.

Toronto Hydro’s warning is stark in its application for approval of the project:

“The potential consequences of inaction, deferral or embarking on an alternative include increased risk of sustained power outages to the downtown core, directly impacting key customers such as the financial district (housing the Toronto Stock Exchange and the headquarters of at least four of Canada’s leading banking institutions), Union Station, the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), Rogers Centre and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.”

“Sustained” outages, Toronto Hydro warns, would be more than inconvenient.

The new station would provide backup for the existing Windsor transformer station in the city core, whose equipment is obsolete. At present, there’s no way to take the station out of service to modernize its gear.

“Equipment failure at Windsor TS is considered one of (Toronto Hydro’s) highest risk events due to both the state of equipment and the critical loads it supplies,” the company warns.

“There is no alternate supply to customers should a switchgear fail, and restoration time would be measured in days, possibly weeks, depending on the failure scenario.”

Toronto Hydro has been saying for the several years that it needs to spend heavily to replace aging equipment. Customers ultimately pay for the spending through higher rates, but the spending must be approved by the energy board.

The proposed new station would be able to backstop the Windsor station so it could be re-equipped.

The new transformer station is also needed to feed power to the new condos and offices sprouting downtown, Toronto Hydro says.

While the transformer station itself will cost $195 million over the next three years, a consultant hired by Toronto Hydro estimates an additional $77 million would have to be spent over the ensuing 15 years to accommodate growth in demand, for a total of $272 million.

That’s too much money, and it doesn’t address the heart of the issue, according to Jack Gibbons.

Gibbons heads the Ontario Clean Air Alliance and also acts as an adviser for Environmental Defence, which filed a formal brief to the energy board written by consultant H.R. Bach.

Gibbons challenges the assumption that demand must continue to grow in the core, arguing that conservation programs could easily flatten the growth in demand.

In New York, he notes, electricity consumption per person is 56 per cent lower than Toronto. Current provincial programs, he said, don’t do enough to encourage conservation.

Toronto also has an untapped capacity to generate power within its own borders, Gibbons argues.

Downtown rooftops are ideal sites for solar panels, which produce maximum power as demand peaks on hot summer afternoons he says.

He also notes that Enwave, which pumps cold lake water to downtown buildings for summer cooling, is looking to expand, which would further curb demand for electrically-driven air conditioning.

There’s also room for small-scale generators fired by natural gas that can produce both heat and power — one already operates in the Sen. David Croll Apartments, another at U of T.

Other projects have been proposed. Northland Power, for example, has suggested a facility at the Redpath Sugar refinery that would generate power for the grid, and steam for the refinery.

Gibbons estimates 1,200 megawatts could be produced — a significant share of the city’s over-all peak demand of about 5,000 megawatts.

That locally produced power could flow directly into the grid, without the need of the new transformer station, which funnels power into the local system from Hydro One’s high-voltage lines.

Spending hundreds of millions on the new transformer station “just makes no sense,” he said in an interview.

“It’s Toronto Hydro pursing a very conventional, 1950s electrical utilities solution.”

Bach’s report for Environmental Defence agrees in broad measure with Gibbons.

He says measures are available to cut the demand for power “well beyond the modest forecast” by Toronto Hydro.

Gibbons wouldn’t put a cost on his array of alternatives, but said it would be far cheaper than the Bremner transformer station.

Toronto Hydro officials wouldn’t be interviewed because the issue is heading to the energy board.

But the company filed a report by Navigant Consulting that was dubious that enough local power plants would ever be built to meet the demand.

There is “considerable uncertainty” that enough local generators would be installed to back up the Windsor station, or to meet demand, Navigant wrote.

Solar panels and wind power may not be reliable enough, either, Navigant said.

Installing local generation “is speculative and not determined to be a viable near term option at this time,” it concluded.