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LISTEN: Toronto Hydro handled ice storm well, needs to improve communication

Review panel wants province to legislate backup power for highrises

Overall, Toronto Hydro did a good job of handling last winter's ice storm, though there is room for improvement .

That is the finding of a panel tasked by the utility with looking at its response to a weather system that knocked out power to over 400, 000 Torontonians just before Christmas.

The panel is made up of energy lawyer David McFadden, Vice President of Emergency Management at a hydro company in New York Carlos Torres, former MPP Sean Conway, now with the Centre for Urban Energy at Ryerson University, Toronto city manager Joe Pennachetti and Miki Deric with utility consulting group Davies Consulting.

Together, they found Toronto Hydro's performance was "in line with industry norms" and in some areas, even better.

But when it came to communication and the accuracy of estimates for timelines for power to be restored, Toronto Hydro left something to be desired.

Communication

The panel found customers could not get "timely and accurate information about their outage status".

The group is recommending Toronto Hydro pay a call centre to be on standby should its own phone bank be overwhelmed. The backup system would not be staffed, but be able to automatically push out messages or record reports of power outages.

CEO Anthony Haines says while Toronto Hydro's phone system was prepared for a big storm, they could not have anticipated the volume that came with the ice storm.

He says on one day in particular, they were hit with 128, 000 calls.

"If we had every call centre agent in every utility in Canada serving Toronto Hydro on that particular day, we still wouldn't have had enough call centre agents to answer half the calls," said Haines.

The panel also recommends Toronto Hydro look at phoning out or using text messaging to get word out to their customers.

Estimated Restoration Times

The panel found Toronto Hydro did not have a standardized system in place to come to a determination of when the lights would be back on for a particular neighbourhood.

It recommends having staffers not tasked with restoration work, go to outage sites to assess the probable timeline for getting everyone back online.

Haines believes coming up with accurate estimates will be one of the biggest challenges for the utility, but something it will take on with the "hope" of being right 90% of the time.

Backup power for highrises

The independent panel would like to see the city petition the provincial government to tweak the building code to make it easier for people living in highrise apartment buildings or condos to get help in the event of a blackout.

The panel says it was surprised to find the "overwhelming majority" of them do not have backup generators to keep elevators moving.

Panel Chair David McFadden worries about paramedics being able to get to seniors, the ill and the infirm 30 storeys up in the event of a medical emergency.

City manager Joe Pennachetti says city council could be asked to petition the province for a change to the building code, legislating backup generators for buildings over a certain height, as early as next month.

Underground power lines

While Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines is receptive to the panel's recommendations, he says one option is out of the question: moving all the system's power lines underground.

Haines says the estimated price tag to do all that is around $15-billion and the project would triple your hydro bill.  Toronto Hydro is exploring the possibility of burying some power lines for important hubs like hospitals and water treatment plants.

Cost to you

The independent panel did not, as part of its work, come up with a cost estimate tied to the recommendations it made to Toronto Hydro.

Haines was not prepared to offer a ballpark figure either, but mentioned a few projects likely to be taken on would cost "tens of millions of dollars" each.

He also thought it was too early to definitively say whether or not Toronto Hydro's improvements would translate into rate increase.

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