Canadian Underwriter

Ontario building code should require ‘backup power for a longer period of time’ in new buildings: ice storm panel

June 20, 2014   by Canadian Underwriter

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The Province of Ontario should consider changing to building code to require more backup electrical power than is currently required, while the City of Toronto should work with the local electrical utility to increase guidelines on the clearance between tree canopies and electricity distribution cables, a review panel suggests.

The Toronto Hydro Independent Review Panel was appointed last January, after an ice storm in late December caused most of Toronto Hydro customers to lose power after tree branches loaded with ice fell on overhead power lines. In early January, some insurers reported claims arising from water pipes bursting, fire damage from candles and fridge and freezer losses.

About 57% — or 416,000 — of Toronto Hydro System Ltd. customers “lost power at one point” after freezing rain the weekend of Dec. 21-22, 2013 caused up to 30 millimetres of ice accumulation in some areas. Toronto Hydro, which serves the city of 2.8 million, has 733,800 customers, the panel noted in the report. Some still did not have their power restored after New Years Day.

In the report, prepared by Davies Consulting LLP, the panel recommended the province “consider a requirement for all new and existing building to provide a means for backup power for a longer period of time.”

Current provincial law on backup power “is intended to accommodate the safe evacuation of occupants within the building in case of a fire emergency and assist the firefighting operations in case of a fire emergency,” the panel stated in the report. However, the regulation “does not address the provision of emergency power for essential needs” such as refrigeration and heat.

In early January, the Royal Bank of Canada’s insurance subsidiary reported to Canadian Underwriter that the majority of claims arising from the ice storm were due to falling tree branches damaging homes and vehicles, but some arose from water pipes bursting, fire damage from candles and claims for living expenses. Aviva Canada reported at the time some of its homeowner policy holders submitted claims arising from “frozen pipes, fridge and freezer losses, damage to cars, sheds and homes because of falling trees and limbs.”

The Toronto Hydro Independent Review Panel was chaired by David J. McFadden, a lawyer with Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP who has represented corporations, municipalities and utilities who generate, transmit and distribute energy.

The other panelists were: Toronto city manager Joseph Pennachetti; former Ontario education minister Sean Conway, who is now a distinguished research fellow at the Ryerson University centre for urban energy in Toronto; and Carlos D. Torres, vice president of emergency management at power utility Consolidated Edison of New York Inc., which distributes electricity to most of New York City and to neighbouring Westchester County.

Most of the damage to Toronto Hydro’s system last December was caused by tree limbs falling on power lines, the panel noted. Of about 101,000 wood poles, Toronto Hydro only had to replace 17.

Referring to the City of Toronto Forestry Cycle Pruning Guidelines, the report noted that the local bylaw requires a 15-centimetre clearance from house service lines, a 30-centimetre clearance from secondary conductors and a 90- centimetre from primary conductors.

“With the recent increase in frequency of major weather events across North America, the City of Toronto line clearance guidelines may not provide for an adequate balance between tree canopy objectives and the need for larger clearance to reduce the risk of widespread, prolonged power outages,” according to the report.

The 90- centimetre guideline for primary lines and the 30- centimetre guideline for secondary wires “are not sufficient to protect the lines during major weather incidents, whether they are related to ice, wind, heavy snow or wind.”

Toronto Hydro, the report noted, “will need to work with the City of Toronto to identify mutually acceptable and cost-efficient options related to increasing vegetation management clearances around power lines.”

During the restoration efforts last December, Toronto Hydro got help from 205 workers from 10 other utilities but it has “limited ability to accommodate a  large influx of mutual assistance resources,” according to the report.

The grid disruption plan “does not address mutual assistance specifically” and Toronto Hydro employed crews from other utilities “through ‘just in time’ assignment of internal staff who were able to draw upon personal experience and lessons learned providing mutual assistance” to other utilities, the panel noted. For example, Toronto Hydro sent staff to help with restoration efforts after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and after the ice storm in 1998 that affected Eastern Ontario and Quebec.

The independent review panel recommended that Toronto Hydro have a strategy “that provides for deployment of all available resources, seamless integration and coordination of crews, and optimal supervisory span of control.”

The utility should also “expand the use of mobile technology to all crews to further automate the exchange of information between the field and command centres,” the panel recommended. This would let outside workers “enter damage information, receive work orders immediately, estimate restoration times, and close work orders in a timely manner.”

The findings of the report are “an unbiased report of our response to the ice storm,” stated Anthony Haines, president and chief executive officer of Toronto Hydro, in a June 18 press release. “The recommendations made by the panel provide some great insight on how we can improve our response when another grid emergency occurs. The findings indicate we did well in many areas, but like all first time experiences, we stressed our people, systems, and processes — we now know where we can improve.”

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