On January 10, Toronto’s City Council will be holding a special meeting to discuss the ice storm and power outage with specific attention to the performance of Toronto Hydro and City emergency services and preparedness plans. The first order of business for Council ought to be commissioning an independent expert review of Toronto Hydro’s incompetent response to the December ice storm focused on the utility’s inability to provide reliable return to service guidance to the people of Toronto.
When the lights go out, the key question consumers have is when service will be restored.
As documented in Part 100 of this series, Toronto Hydro’s CEO Anthony Haines came up with a new, completely unreliable story on the remaining restoration time EVERY DAY OF THE BLACKOUT.
The inquiry must address why the utility was unable to provide reliable recovery time forecasts and what must be done to deliver reliable guidance on when consumers will have power restored the next time Toronto hits a patch of inclement weather.
To undertake a proper review, City Council must overcome its own conflict of interest in the Toronto Hydro gravy train, which last year paid $48 million in dividends to the City.
Particularly over the last two years, Toronto City Council has failed to protect the interests of consumers, instead protecting the status quo at the utility despite a mountain of evidence of the CEO’s perjury over his credentials, the utility’s wasteful spending, and its regulatory strategy of using outages as assets.
Toronto Hydro customers pay premium rates but receive delivery service that is mediocre at best. In 2012, Toronto’s household electricity consumers paid 21% more for delivery service than the next most inefficient urban power distributor in Ontario (Hydro Ottawa). In recent years, Toronto Hydro has spent in excess of $100 million on smart meters, smart grid, and associated capital projects on the promise, in part, of better storm recovery service, including reliable return to service estimates.
From the information I have obtained directly from correspondents within Toronto Hydro, I believe that effectively planned and organized storm response, including better use of technologies already installed, would have reconnected everyone much faster. In addition, information was available that could have been used to deliver much more reliable recovery time estimates.
Instead, CEO Anthony Haines delivered chaotic daily musings during the outage on when consumers would be reconnected. I can find nobody inside Toronto Hydro who believed any of his promises to consumers.
At the July 2013 meeting of City Council, a decision was taken ordering Toronto Hydro to report on whistle blower protection. The agenda item was put over to Council’s October meeting. Toronto Hydro’s management skillfully stick-handled around the issue, including this report, and today the CEO has still has ultimate authority over how whistleblowers will be treated.
Had Council not ducked the issue of whistleblower protection at its October meeting, it would be easy to confirm whether any Toronto Hydro employees believed Haines, such as when on December 22nd he promised full power in 72 hours.
Since the purpose of any inquiry into Toronto Hydro’s response to the ice storm is to investigate the utility itself, it would be inappropriate for the utility to have any influence over the mandate, staffing, or funding of the inquiry. The inquiry must report directly to Council. Any credible inquiry will need to obtain direct input from those involved in the storm recovery including but not limited to engineers, planners, power system controllers, supervisors, crew leaders, and staff managing communication with the public. Those working in local incident command centres should be interviewed, as should employees from other utilities who assisted Toronto Hydro during the recovery. Particular attention should be paid to whether the storm response actions taken complied with all required safety protocols, incidents where inspections or patrolling might not have been conducted by qualified personnel, crews sent to patrol circuits that had been already returned to service, crews ordered to drop tools in the midst of recovery work, information available to and demands on controllers, and the performance of Smart Grid elements.
All staff providing input to the inquiry should be assured comprehensive whistleblower protection.
Issues such as the extent of undergrounding, assets condition assessment, and tree canopy management practices ought to be secondary concerns for Council. These are longterm issues that are all highly technical and better managed through administrative procedures instead of political debates. Demanding that Toronto Hydro immediately pull up its socks so as to provide reliable guidance on outage recovery time is the central issue that Council ought to focus on.