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Ontario's aging grid puts province at risk of more blackouts

Toronto's A.W. Manby transformer station, where a fire broke out on Mon., July 4.

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Ontarians can expect more days like Monday when a Hydro One breaker burst into flames, leaving 240,000 sweltering residents in the province's largest city without power during a heat wave. Much of the Crown-owned utility's equipment is nearing the end of its design life. As the provincial government reins in spending for political purposes, it is neglecting the aging infrastructure that keeps the air conditioners humming, critics say.

The cause of the fire at a transformer station that shut down much of Toronto for four hours is still under investigation. Hydro One spokeswoman Daniele Gauvin said it is not known why the circuit breaker caught fire. But it happened on a day when demand for electricity peaked at a high of 25,000 megawatts, but below the record of 27,005 set in August, 2006.

The outage was a stark reminder that an aging electricity grid is leaving many regions vulnerable to blackouts. One day after Toronto was plunged into darkness, scattered outages were reported around Montreal, leaving 651 Hydro-Québec customers without power.

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If Ontario wants a modern electricity system that's suitable for a 21st-century economy, that's going to require some big investments, said energy policy analyst Keith Stewart.

"You get what you pay for," he said. "If you aren't willing to pay for a reliable system, then you get an unreliable one."

But just how much the Ontario government spends on upgrading the province's electricity transmission lines is largely dictated by politics. Earlier this year, the government took the unusual step of asking the province's two Crown-owned electricity utilities to scale back their requests for hydro rate increases, amid worries of a consumer backlash over soaring power costs.

Brad Duguid, Ontario's Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, said it would be difficult for the government to invest more aggressively in upgrading the transmission system because consumers are already facing higher power prices from investments the province is making in new sources of electricity generation.

"We're asking a lot of Ontarians when we make these investments," Mr. Duguid said. "I think we've struck the right balance."

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The transmission grid that delivers power to local utilities throughout North America was developed about 50 years ago, said Reza Iravani, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto. If the system is not refurbished, he said, it will become more prone to power outages.

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"When the equipment reaches the end of its lifetime, it has to be replaced," he said. "Otherwise, the reliability is jeopardized."

All of the major transmission utilities in North America invested significant dollars in upgrading their systems following the blackout of 2003. Hydro One, which owns and operates the province's electricity transmission system, invested more than $600-million in its transmission system in 2007, the largest amount in 20 years.

That same year, the utility took stock of two of its transformer stations serving Toronto, including the Manby transformer station where the breaker exploded. The 2007 report concludes a large number of circuit breakers and transformers as well as significant lengths of underground cables and overhead transmission lines will need to be refurbished or replaced over the next five to ten years at its stations.

Hydro One says in its 2009 financial statements that it plans to spend $530-million on its aging infrastructure this year and $620-million in 2011. But at a time when the economic recession has left the province's coffers depleted, the government also relies on Hydro One as a source of income. Over the past five years, the utility has paid $1.4-billion in dividends to the province.

Progressive Conservative energy critic John Yakabuski criticized the government for "neglecting" the province's aging electricity infrastructure. "These things just can't be ignored," he said.

With a report from Les Perreaux in Montreal

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