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Why did it take so long to restore power after May’s derecho storm?


“The trauma of this event (storm)… our company is still carrying it, so it will be central to our planning going forward.”

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A month after a derecho storm wreaked unprecedented havoc on Ottawa’s power grid, plunging thousands of residents into days of darkness, Hydro Ottawa leaders came to City Council on Wednesday with answers to the questions they likely heard from many exasperated residents following the weather disaster.

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Why did it take so long to restore power?

It all depended on the extent of the damage, said Hydro Ottawa Chairman of the Board, Jim Durrell, in a presentation that accompanied the utility’s annual report. Even the impact of the 2018 tornadoes and 1998 ice storm ‘had nothing to do’ with the devastation of the May 21 storm and its likely wind speed of 190 kilometers per hour, which knocked down 400 poles locally-about the total number in the city-owned company would erect in a year.

Durrell used an analogy of the municipal snow removal process to explain why some residents had to wait more than a week to get their electricity back. Like the city’s snow removal crews, which first deploy on major roads and transportation routes before moving to secondary and then residential roads, Durrell said Hydro Ottawa has prioritized critical infrastructure such as hospitals and water treatment plants, then focused on restoring power where it would benefit. the greatest number of customers, leaving patches that would only light up 10 to 15 homes, for example, as opposed to others that would restore power for hundreds.

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Was it a problem of insufficient resources available to Hydro?

No, concluded Durrell, noting that for the fifth consecutive year, Hydro Ottawa was the leader among its peers in the frequency of local outages over the past year and their duration. Deploying more people beyond the 600 who worked to respond to last month’s storm wouldn’t have made a difference, according to Durrell. Crews faced complex challenges, such as damaged poles in backyards that required long and difficult repair work.

He also dismissed concerns over the use of wooden utility poles. Hydro Ottawa uses fiberglass composite poles in some places and a number of them were also knocked down in the storm, he said.

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“The wooden posts are not the problem; a storm of this magnitude will always be a problem.

As for the suggestion that the process of restoring power for some may have been affected by income, race, gender or a similar factor, Durrell said he was insulted by this line of questioning. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Hydro Ottawa will write a report on lessons learned from the storm and the highlights will be shared with council members. This will include how the utility communicated with customers following – an issue a number of councilors raised on Wednesday, along with plenty of praise and gratitude for Hydro’s storm response efforts .

Innes Ward County Laura Dudas challenged utility management to consider innovative ways to communicate with residents during extended power outages when they may not have internet access. While last month’s weather event was a unique situation, she acknowledged, it left city advisors and resources trying to fill in the information gaps for customers.

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Hydro Ottawa President and CEO Bryce Conrad said the company removed its outage map, which provides estimated recovery times, to avoid misleading and further antagonizing customers. It generally works well but struggled under the enormity of the storm’s impact, he said, and was restored just over a week after the storm hit.

There is room for improvement at Hydro on the communications front, Durrell acknowledged, but he pushed back against a claim by the River Ward Coun. Riley Brockington that this is a pre-Storm issue.

“If I got any comments from board members, it’s basically that you were all very happy with the level of communication you got under normal circumstances,” he said. “In this one, not all the cards were on the table, we agree it could be better, and we will strive to make it as good as possible.”

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The storm also reaffirmed the importance of strengthening infrastructure against the effects of climate change, which Conrad said has been a priority since the 2018 tornadoes.

“The trauma of this event (storm)… our company is still carrying it, so it will be central to our planning going forward.”

But board members don’t just take Hydro’s word for it. They adopted a motion from the Rideau-Rockcliffe ward council. Rawlson King for the Mayor to write to the CEO of the utility requesting an action plan for better communications in the event of an outage, a more effective response to the crisis, faster modernization of the distribution network and a timetable for investments capital in the resilience of the network, which would be shared with the public.

As for the cost of the storm, Durrell said Hydro’s current estimates put it at $25 million to $30 million.

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After paying the board a record dividend of $23.7 million for 2021, Conrad said it had committed to paying a dividend of $20 million, at a minimum, for 2022, and the board should plan not to receive more than this baseline in the absence of financial support to Provincial Hydro.

However, Premier Doug Ford has pledged to cover the costs of the storm, according to Durrell. He also said Ford calls the CEO of Hydro Ottawa every day after the storm hits. Ford was criticized during the election campaign for not visiting the city in the aftermath of the storm. He made his first appearance in Ottawa on May 30.

“I spoke to the prime minister more often than to my wife during that two-week period,” Conrad said.

Another concern for a number of councilors on Wednesday was the lack of backup generators in some large residential buildings in the city, which left elevators out of service and in some cases cut off residents’ water supplies for May blackouts.

That someone could run a large apartment without backup power is something Conrad said he was amazed by.

“I find it shocking, I find it almost… borderline criminal.”

Council unanimously passed a motion presented by Knoxdale–Merivale Ward Council. Keith Egli, for staff to identify regulatory changes needed to ensure more consistent use of standby generators in multi-unit residential buildings with elevators as well as gas stations.

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