Approximately 50 Thorncliffe Park residents showed up April 13, 2013 at an event sponsored by Councilor John Parker to hear Toronto Hydro’s explanation for the March 8th-10th 2013 blackout in Thorncliffe Park. Although the crowd was small, there was a noteworthy turnout of local politicos. The crowd included former candidate for City Council Jon Burnside, former mayoralty candidate and former ward 26 Councilor Jane Pitfield, the provincial PC candidate for Don Valley West David Porter as well as Councilor Parker.
Local citizens had asked me to attend. I am not a resident of the affected area.
Among the key points arising from the meeting:
Toronto Hydro admitted that the blackout was not caused by aging infrastructure, contradicting the utility’s previous claims.
Toronto Hydro refused to disclose reports on the cause of the accident and the utility’s presentation slides.
Toronto Hydro VP Ben La Pianta claimed that executive bonuses are not related to capital spending, a statement that contradicts the utility’s published financial reports.
Speaking for Toronto Hydro were VPs Blair Peberdy and Ben La Pianta plus Tanya Bruckmueller-Wilson, a communications person from the CEO’s office whose name I missed (Tamara?), and Lucas Millmore.
Toronto Hydro’s initial presenter was Lucas Millmore, Director of Distribution Operations. He showed perhaps 15 PowerPoint slides in rapid succession. The prepared presentation was scoped to exclude events leading up to the March 8, 2013 failure. The only fact that he mentioned during his prepared remarks that related to the lead-up to the event was that the switch in question was installed in 1999. He claimed that the switch had a 20 year expected life based on the manufacturer specifications (a figure that appears to require verification).
The new admission about the age of the switch directly contradicts many previous public statements of Toronto Hydro that the cause of the failure was aging infrastructure.
When he had finished flipping through his slides, I asked Mr. Millmore whether Toronto Hydro would be making a copy of his slides available? Millmore looked to the communications person from the CEO’s office. She announced that the presentation slides would not be made public.
One of his points in the prepared presentation was to claim that Toronto’s reliability statistics are very good. My second question asked him to acknowledge that Toronto Hydro’s unreliability was more than twice as bad as Enersource Mississauga’s? Millmore started into a long explanation of Mississauga’s differences from Toronto, evading repeated efforts to address the basic statistics about Toronto Hydro’s unreliability.
I asked if he could explain to the group the purpose of Toronto Hydro’s “Tag Out/Lock Out” process? He replied that it was very complicated, off topic, and not what the utility was prepared to discuss.
I asked if reports of low gas pressure in the switch prior to its failure would be reported to the Tag Out/Lock Out process and how long that information would be archived?
At this point, the communications person from the CEO’s office, grabbed the mic and said that they needed to move on to other questioners. There was a general hubbub of objection of the crowd indicating that I should keep going with my questions.
I then asked if Toronto Hydro had a report on the factors contributing to the switch’s failure? Millmore answered that they had various documents but no report. I asked if those various documents would be released to the public? He said no.
At this point, Toronto Hydro refused to answer any more of my questions so I sat down.
VP Blair Peberdy said repeatedly that the utility is not liable for damages. He also said that the utility’s insurance company advised them not to pay any claims but Toronto Hydro overruled that advice to make the $50 offer to all residents affected.
There were many well-informed and pointed questions from the local residents attending the town hall.
Why is Toronto Hydro paying a performance bonus to the CEO when reliability is going down? Answer: We’re not here to discuss that.
Was there a connection between Toronto Hydro’s recent construction activities in the area immediately prior to a water main break in the same location that occurred immediately after Toronto Hydro’s construction? (I didn’t catch the reply to this question.)
Why did Peberdy say on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning show immediately after the blackout that the problem had been caused by aging infrastructure? Answer from Peberdy: The topic of the interview was aging infrastructure.
What inspections had the failed switch received? Answer: The switch was inspected on December 4, 2012 and January 13, 2013. Both times the pressure was low but was within the manufacturer’s specifications. The switch was scheduled for replacement in June 2013 (I should have asked the obvious follow-ups of why not service the switch instead of replacing it? What was the rate of pressure loss?)
At about this point in the questioning, the communications person from the CEO’s office announced that Mr. Milmore had to leave for family reasons.
Why is Toronto Hydro issuing dividends when it claims to be suffering a funding crisis for needed investment? Answer: You don’t understand corporate finance and regulation.
Why is Toronto Hydro awarding executive bonuses for capital spending? At this point, Toronto Hydro VP Ben La Pianta jumped up to ask the questioner where he is getting his information. Reply: www.tomadamsenergy.com. La Pianta shot back: “Only you and six other people read that site.” La Pianta claimed that Toronto Hydro does not use capital spending in executive bonuses. (As documented in Toronto Hydro’s Annual Information Forms posted on SEDAR, La Pianta’s bonus in 2011 was $118,421, 30% of which was directly indexed to a unique measure Toronto Hydro calls “Distribution Plan Capital per Unit”. This website has criticized this bonus methodology. In 2012 La Pianta’s bonus was $140,921, 10% of which was directly indexed to a conventional definition of capital spending.)
Several residents raised questions about damages they had suffered including one blind gentleman who lost medications worth approximately $350.00. Toronto Hydro presented a claims form. That form does not appear to be posted on the utility’s web site but will be posted on this site as soon as possible.
As the questioning became more heated, the communications person from the CEO’s office grabbed the mic and started responding to all questions by explaining that OEB regulations are very complex and that she’d be happy to talk about this for hours after the meeting concluded.
Corrections of these minutes by folks who attended, including Toronto Hydro representatives, would be appreciated. As usual, all serious comments are welcome.
After the meeting, many affected citizens asked me to recommend a lawyer who might represent them. I was unable to provide an answer to this interesting question.
Post Script January 9, 2014: The claim made by Mr. La Pianta and his staff that the expect life of SF6 switches is supposed to be 20 years seemed strange at the time. Upon further fact checking of Toronto Hydro’s technical statements made at that meeting, my concern has grown more pointed.
The major point at issue in the Thorncliffe Park blackout was the utility’s public statements blaming the outage on aging infrastructure. At the public meeting held in the community and hosted by the local Councillor, John Parker, Toronto Hydro technical representatives acknowledged that the piece of equipment that failed — an SF6 switch — had been installed in 1999. This would make the equipment approximately 14 years old at the time of failure. When cross questioned on how a 14 year old switch could be considered old, the technical representative for Toronto Hydro at the meeting, a person reporting to Mr. LaPianta, stated that the life expectancy of the switch was 20 years.
Here are statements excerpted from the 2007 report done for Toronto Hydro “DISTRIBUTION ASSET CONDITION ASSESSMENT
FOR TORONTO HYDRO ELECTRICAL SYSTEMS LIMITED, Kinectrics Inc. Report No.: K-012905-RA-0002-R00” discussing the life expectancy of SF6 switches.
Circuit breakers are a very maintainable component. All of the parts that wear out with use, such as contacts, bearings, springs, can be replaced. The yellow end-of-life lines (at 50 years) on Figure 3-3 are typical for the industry but they cannot be applied to individual units. (p. 42 of print version)