By the end of a virtual press conference on Monday afternoon, Hydro Ottawa’s Bryce Conrad made two things clear: The electric company could not have foreseen the destructive power of Saturday’s storm, and it’s uncertain how we can guard against such violent weather in the future. .
“We don’t really know what the hell happened to us,” said the candid president and CEO. “But whatever it was, it knocked down composite posts that are 65 feet tall.”
Those composite hydropiles, like the one along Hawthorne Road in the city’s southeast, should be more durable than the wooden ones they’re gradually replacing. But the poles were no match for Saturday’s storm, which is now identified by climatologists as a derecho.
Likewise, winds of up to 75 mph (75mph) toppled at least four of Hydro One’s high-voltage cell towers feeding the city.
“They’re designed to withstand ice loads and massive winds, and they collapsed like children’s toys,” Conrad said.
The magnitude and extent of damage to Ottawa’s power grid has overshadowed the aftermath of the 2018 tornadoes and even the 1998 ice storm, according to officials, who admitted they were not only surprised but also unsure how to manage a recurrence.
“I’d like to tell you that I have a perfect plan so that this never happens again,” Conrad said, suggesting that neither he nor Hydro Ottawa has such a detailed strategy.
2019 study noted wind risk
Hydro Ottawa has even carefully considered the potential damage from high winds.
In a 2019 report, engineering consultants Stantec assessed a range of climate-related risks to Hydro Ottawa’s distribution system — everything from extreme heat and cold to invasive species — and identified extreme winds as the greatest threat to power lines, particularly those running north. south.
We need a more advanced network.– Alexandra Mallett, Carleton University
While the final report notes that such wind speeds are relatively rare, it also notes that “Hydro Ottawa personnel have been noticing wind intensity and frequency in recent years.”
The report also provides a case study of an earlier “high wind event” in May 2018, when approximately 30,000 Hydro Ottawa customers lost power.
Saturday’s storm drained 180,000 power, or about half of the utility’s customers, and broke or broke 163 hydroelectric power plants in the city. By Tuesday afternoon, even with crews from numerous jurisdictions working around the clock, 74,000 customers were left in the dark.
No simple solutions
On Monday, Conrad suggested there are no easy solutions when it comes to protecting Hydro Ottawa’s distribution system from wild weather, and there are certainly no cheap ones.
“Burying the infrastructure isn’t necessarily the solution, buying more expensive piles isn’t necessarily the right answer. I wish I had the right answer,” he said, pointing out that in Ottawa’s Trend-Arlington neighborhood, which was destroyed due to a tornado in 2018, most power lines are buried.
Customers in the area lost electricity when the tornado damaged a nearby transmission station.
Alexandra Mallett, an associate professor at Carleton University’s school of public policy, agrees that there are no easy solutions.
“We need a more resilient and agile system,” said Mallett, whose focus is on sustainable energy policies. “We need a more sophisticated network.”
Mallett believes the days of “pushing electrons” through high voltage wires into local distribution systems are numbered.
She believes that a better system would allow homeowners to generate and store their own electricity so that they can feed it back into the grid.
That could help create more self-sufficient “micro-grids” that are less prone to widespread power outages, said Mallett, who still had no power at her home in Glabar Park on Tuesday.
Mother Nature in charge
She also advocates improved “demand management,” which would help Hydro Ottawa avoid the peaks and troughs typical of major city energy consumption patterns.
“Hydro Ottawa needs to step back and say OK, if these events happen more often – and the reality is they are – then they need to get ahead of the game and get on with this now,” said Mallett.
David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada, agreed that electric utilities will have to adapt, but warned that most man-made solutions fall short.
“They scratch themselves and wonder how we can get out of these things? And you know, nature has all the trumps,” Phillips said.
“I think we should do what we can to protect ourselves as best we can, but there’s a limit to how protective we can be.”