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We’re not Texas, but Ontario needs to improve electrical system

We shook our heads in disbelief at the recent blackouts in Texas, our own electricity systems aren’t such that we can afford to be overly judgmental.

The situation in Texas was, on the surface, largely preventable. Greed-fuelled deregulation led to inadequate preparations for the wintry weather that took down a large part of the state’s generating and distribution capacity. The problem was exacerbated by Republican ideology, which supports said greed-fuelled deregulation.

Ontario, of course, had its own dalliance with deregulation during the Harris government, which split up Ontario Hydro but halted its full plan due to public backlash and signs of the same issues besetting Texans right now: huge cost spikes due to leaving prices to the market.

“A fateful series of decisions were made in the late-’90s, when the now-defunct, scandal-plagued energy company Enron led a successful push to radically deregulate Texas’s electricity sector. As a result, decisions about the generation and distribution of power were stripped from regulators and, in effect, handed over to private energy companies. Unsurprisingly, these companies prioritized short-term profit over costly investments to maintain the grid and build in redundancies for extreme weather,” writes Naomi Klein in a piece last week for the New York Times.

“Today, Texans are at the mercy of regulation-allergic politicians who failed to require that energy companies plan for shocks or weatherize their infrastructure (renewables and fossil fuel alike). In a recent appearance on NBC’s Today show, Austin’s mayor, Steve Adler, summed it up: ‘We have a deregulated power system in the state and it does not work, because it does not build in the incentives in order to protect people.’”

Given that utilities are typically natural monopolies, having the private sector involved is usually a lose-lose proposition, with citizens facing both higher bills and inadequate investments in infrastructure. As we’re entirely dependent on electricity – its absence is an existential threat to our society – there’s no excuse for not preparing for the worst. These days, that means more extreme weather due to a changing climate.

Ontario’s system certainly has the winterization that Texas lacks, but those aren’t the only threats – just this week, Golden Horseshoe provider Alectra Utilities, the largest municipally-owned electric utility in Canada, was warning of possible outages due to strong winds.

The electrical grid is much more reliable here than in much of the world, where service interruptions and even regular blackouts and brownouts are the norm. Still, there’s reason to be mindful of the potential for future disruptions if we get the kind of extreme weather predicted for the future.

The likes of high winds, tornadoes and freezing rain can all bring down power lines, cutting off power to a few homes in the case of a fallen tree to thousands should a major ice storm take out large swathes of the grid.

The system has become more robust since major tests a couple of decades ago, the 1998 ice storm and the 2003 blackout. Likewise, attempts to bring more supply online and to boost conservation efforts have made it much less likely peak demand will take down the system.

Still, there’s no reason to be complacent, as that situation can change, particularly given Ontario’s reliance on nuclear power and the costs of maintaining the system.

Substantial efforts are needed on the conservation and alternative-supply fronts to tackle the long-term issues we face in maintaining a safe, abundant and – equally important – affordable electrical system in place for Ontarians. We’ve taken conservation measures to heart, but prices continue to climb. Time-of-day pricing hasn’t had the impact proponents claimed, though it has hit us financially.

Electricity costs in Ontario have outstripped inflation, the marginal growth in the economy, increases in income and our ability to pay. Ontario electricity prices increased twice as fast as the national average over the past decade. A two per cent increase came into effect in the fall, with the province removing pandemic-led holds on time-of-use pricing as of last week – your bills will increase.

Doing your laundry and cooking at, say, 2 a.m. would prevent you from paying more, as would avoiding heat in the dead of winter and air conditioning on the most stifling of summer days. Unfortunately, peak time is identified as that time when most of us need electricity: if the house is empty all day because we’re at work and school, there’s no usage going on. Ditto for the wee hours when most of us are asleep.

That said, there is every reason for us to conserve, and it can be done without completely revamping your schedule. Simple measures such as reducing the wattage of light bulbs, using timers, and turning off lights and equipment when they’re not in use can be beneficial. Ultimately, larger-scale conservation measures are in order: requiring more stringent codes for home building, demanding more from appliance manufacturers, and the like. Retrofitting projects, whereby utilities actually pay for users to replace energy-hogging appliances and to upgrade insulation in their homes, have proven more cost effective than building new capacity, the usual choice of expansion-minded utilities.

Down the road, we’ll likely have to look at off-the-grid and neighbourhood micro-generators to help with costs and to improve reliability if severe weather, for instance, starts to place a bigger burden on the transmission system. There, too, conservation will be the key to making costs more manageable.

We should be mindful of our energy consumption, which is among the highest in the world. We’re also well advised to keep an eye on the alternatives. Ontarians, of course, are very much aware of what electricity costs us, at least as it applies to our wallets.

Somewhat ironically, green energy is often blamed for ever-rising hydro rates. Though increasingly problematic, the impact is overstated by opponents. Whatever method we opt for, prices will go up. As consumers of electricity, we’ve never paid the actual cost of bringing it to us, let alone all the things that come along with our dependence of energy, such as the environmental impacts.

As with so much of our infrastructure, we’re having to renew decades-old systems while building new ones to accommodate population growth. Political action has been less than expedient, the bane of most long-term planning issues.

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