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Trees too close to hydro lines, report on ice storm concludes

An ice caked power line hangs low over a road in Toronto on Dec. 22, 2013.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Toronto by-laws don't require enough space between trees and power lines to keep downed branches from causing massive power outages, such as those during last December's ice storm, an independent review has found.

In its report released Wednesday, an ice storm review panel recommended Toronto Hydro should work with the city to find a balance between their goals of maximizing protection for power lines and maintaining the city's tree canopy. The report made other recommendations, including outsourcing telecommunications services or training Toronto's 311 call takers to handle hydro inquiries so Toronto Hydro can deal with a greater call volume: It did not have the capacity to handle the nearly 400,000 calls it received in the two weeks of the storm's aftermath.

The storm left 300,000 customers without power, many forced to celebrate Christmas in the dark as their lights stayed off for more than a week. Toronto Hydro restored power to 86 per cent of customers within 72 hours.

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"Most of the damage from the storm was due to the trees," said Miki Deric, partner at Davies Consulting, the firm hired to conduct the review on behalf of the four-person panel that included City Manager Joe Pennachetti; Sean Conway, fellow at Ryerson University's Centre for Urban Energy; Carlos Torres, vice-president of emergency management at Consolidated Edison of New York; and chair David McFadden, partner at Gowlings law firm. The review process involved interviews with Toronto Hydro and city officials, data analysis and reviewing the company's internal plans and documents.

"Limbs were falling on lines and breaking those lines all over the city," Mr. Deric said at a news conference downtown. "Three feet is just not enough if there's going to be an increased frequency of these large events."

The review, commissioned by Toronto Hydro, found the company's response to the storm was at or above industry standards in all aspects, but pointed out areas for improvement in restoring power, mitigating damage and communicating with customers and stakeholders in the future.

Mr. Deric said Toronto must decide whether a reduction of the tree canopy is something people want, though the report provided other options, such as moving some power lines underground and to front yards from back yards.

"It's really about how much are you willing to clear around the lines," he said.

Mr. Pennachetti said city staff will work with Toronto Hydro over the next year or two to plan out how to move forward.

"We're going to present to council options," he said. "If you want to hold on to a canopy … and that's the priority, here's the impact that may happen on this side of the coin."

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At a separate news conference, Toronto Hydro president and chief executive Anthony Haines said the company has been moving power lines from residential back yards to underground in front yards, a move that is set to cost about $75-million.

"We think that that is and continues to be a proven program for Toronto Hydro and so we will continue to ask for funding to the Ontario Energy Board for that," he said.

Trees can actually help keep Toronto Hydro's costs low, Mr. Haines said, because they provide shade around homes that then use less air conditioning.

"It's really a love-hate relationship," Mr. Haines said.

It would also help if the city planted trees further away from power lines so they wouldn't require a lot of pruning, he said.

He said moving all power lines underground is expensive and leaves them susceptible to flooding, adding that digging up the ground means cutting trees anyway.

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"We don't see undergrounding the system as the solution that will increase reliability and reduce cost," he said.

Mr. Haines estimated it would cost about $15-billion to move all the city's power lines underground and would increase hydro rates for customers threefold.

He agreed with the report that some key assets around the city should have underground power lines, such as Sunnybrook hospital, which lost power for two days during the ice storm.

Toronto Hydro's tree-trimming budget dropped over the years leading up to the ice storm to $2.5-million in 2012, down from $3.5-million in 2010. The independent review backed the company's claim that the price-drop is due to cheaper prices negotiated with a contractor in 2008, rather than fewer trees being trimmed.

The review panel also recommended the province require all high-rises have back-up generators to run elevators in case of power outages, something that's especially important for seniors. Its suggestions to improve Toronto Hydro's technology systems to get more accurate information to customers and across the company could cost between $20-30 million, Mr. Haines said.

He estimated the review will cost at least $200,000, though he didn't have a bill yet.

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