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Toronto Hydro vault inspector Ron Noro makes his way up from a vault under Gerrard Street containing a rusted-out transformer in a pool of oil that leaked out from the device. (Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail/Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Hydro vault inspector Ron Noro makes his way up from a vault under Gerrard Street containing a rusted-out transformer in a pool of oil that leaked out from the device. (Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail/Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail)

infrastructure

Is it lights out for Toronto's electrical grid? Add to ...

To visit the Windsor Transformer Station near Wellington and John is to take a walk into the history of electrical power. Toronto Hydro built the station in 1950, when Louis St. Laurent was prime minister and Harry Truman was in the White House.

Apart from an expansion in 1968, the station has remained much as it was then. Rows of lockers in battleship grey line long, tiled corridors. The lockers hold giant circuit breakers that guard Toronto’s power grid against damaging short circuits or power overloads, just as the circuit breaker on your basement switch box protects your home.

Supervisor Mario Arruda advises a visitor not to bump into the lockers. He might just knock out power to some downtown office building.

“Most of this equipment is 60 years old,” he said. “It’s at the point where it needs to be replaced.”

Like much of Toronto’s infrastructure – water pipes, sewers, bridges, expressways – its electrical grid is an artifact of another era. It was built out in the post-war-boom years of the fifties and sixties. Now, it is old, often unreliable and badly in need of renewal.

Toronto Hydro, the publicly owned utility that distributes power to 700,000 customers in Canada’s biggest city, says that nearly half of its equipment is past its “useful life,” or will be within 10 years.

The cost of rebuilding is enormous. Hydro reckons the equipment that needs renewing has a replacement value of $5-billion. To pay the bill, Hydro applied for a special rate increase that would raise the tab for the average customer by $5 a month. Earlier this month, the Ontario Energy Board turned it down flat, saying Hydro had failed to prove it needed the hike to do the job.

In response, the utility made one of the most dramatic gestures in its century-long history. It staged what amounts to a corporate strike and abruptly stopped work on all renewal projects, throwing hundreds of contractors out of work and warning it might have to lay off 20 per cent of its own work force of 1,700.

Whoever is in the right, Hydro or the OEB, the high-level dispute cast a spotlight on the state of Toronto’s vital power grid. Both sides agree it needs heavy investment to keep the juice flowing as smoothly as customers have come to expect.

Outages are a way of life

Electricity is the lifeblood of a 21st-century city. Energy-gobbling condos are popping up all over town. Plugged-in city dwellers rely on their electronics for work and play.

But Toronto takes its grid for granted. Most of us are oblivious to the web of power lines, transformers and breakers that keep the city humming night and day. Except, of course, when it fails.

The huge blackout that plunged northeastern North America into darkness in 2003 was a reminder of the complexity and fragility of the grid. Toronto got another reminder when a circuit breaker exploded in an Etobicoke transformer station on a steamy summer day in 2010, affecting power to 250,000 homes and many downtown office buildings.

Other warning signs abound. In the last month alone, there have been at least two significant outages. An underground cable failed in the Finch and Neilson Road area, affecting 150 homes. When crews fixed the cable, it failed at another point along the line, and repair crews had to go in again.

In the downtown east end, a fire in an underground vault knocked out power to several blocks. The equipment in the vault was old and scheduled to be replaced. One building, 33 Princess St., was without power for 26 hours.

In some areas, regular outages are a way of life. Don Mills homeowner Dan Servos says that his neighbourhood suffers five to 10 a year, mostly as a result of aging transformers on hydro poles or of tree branches hitting old, exposed power lines. Some outages have lasted up to 24 hours. Others have knocked out the heat on cold winter nights. The problem is so well-known that thieves have started to take advantage of the blackouts to rob houses. Mr. Servos lost property worth $20,000 in a 2010 break-in.

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