Ontario Electricity Regulation Crisis Report Part 120: Application to Toronto Ombudsman

(Earlier today, I submitted the following request to Fiona Crean, Ombudsman, City of Toronto.)

I am writing to request your office undertake an investigation into the April 15, 2014 Union Street Blackout that knocked out power to about one quarter of the City of Toronto. The factors causing that event and the utility’s response to it indicate governance problems impairing the operations of Toronto Hydro, a corporation under your oversight.

Independent documentation presented here establishes beyond any doubt that Toronto Hydro’s Union Street refurbishment project was carelessly implemented, negligent with respect to worker safety, and directly caused a blackout that hit about a quarter of the city. In a TV interview soon after Toronto Hydro technical staff had participated in a team that determined the cause of the blackout, Toronto Hydro’s CEO blamed another utility for causing the blackout. In addition, I present some evidence, albeit much less thoroughly documented,suggesting that the project or perhaps some elements such as the pole replacement were unnecessary.

The matters of concern arising from the facts this case relate to two general topics within your authority:

– an action taken “without an obvious relationship to the facts or evidence” and,
– an action that violates “well established, known and accepted policies or procedures”.

As you will see from the documentation presented below, there are gaps in the information now available in the public realm. Normally, I would seek additional documentation on the circumstances surrounding the Union Street Blackout by way of a Freedom of Information (FOI) application. However, one of the key issues in this case relates to the truthfulness of official statements from the agency controlling the information. The investigative capacities of your office are better suited for documenting and addressing the matters at issue than a mere FOI.

Union Street Blackout Event Summary

On April 15, 2014, 176,648 households and other customers in west Toronto were blacked out when a Toronto Hydro distribution line under construction on Union Street, near St. Clair and Old Weston Rd., ground faulted a Hydro One high-voltage line serving a large portion of the city. This type of failure is known as a “flashover”. Toronto Hydro’s construction of an overhead distribution line along Union Street — the cause of the blackout — was part of the “aging infrastructure renewal” program central to the utility’s business plans and approved by the Ontario Energy Board. Similar projects are under way and planned across the utility.

In a summary report issued and publicly posted by Hydro One, dated May 9, 2014, is available <here>.

In its May 9th report Hydro One indicates, “This resulted in a serious flashover event and created a significant health and safety risk to utility workers and the public. Thankfully, no injuries resulted from the incident.”

I also obtained and published a detailed technical report authored by Hydro One, issued May 1, 2014 but not prepared for public release. This “Customer Bulletin” is available <here>.

Hydro One’s “Customer Bulletin” indicates that Toronto Hydro technical experts were part of the team that, immediately after the event, determined Toronto Hydro’s construction to have been the causal factor. As indicated at page 1, “An onsite investigation by Hydro One and Toronto Hydro resulted in the lowering of the new (Toronto Hydro) feeder to acceptable limits on April 16.” At page 8, the report indicates that Toronto Hydro’s new feeder “violated acceptable clearances” and that the installation of the feeder put workers at risk. The report indicates that Hydro One’s high voltage circuit in question did not cause the problem. Hydro One’s circuit, “was operated below its continuous current limit at all times” and its sag behaviour during the event was well within design parameters.

Matters of Concern

As documented <here> the manufacturing date of most of the pre-existing concrete poles was 1996, although a couple were from 1994 as shown in the referenced photo series. Although not documented in this photo series, it appears that the poles were installed in 1998 or 1999, making the line approximately 15-16 years old. Note that StressCrete of Burlington, the manufacturer for most of the poles used in the original line installed on Union Street in the late 1990, guarantees its poles in typical applications for 75 years. StressCrete has poles still in service from the 1960’s. These facts can be readily confirmed by contacting the firm at (905) 632-9301. For financial reporting purposes, Toronto Hydro calculates depreciation is on a straight-line basis over the estimated useful lives of different classes of equipment. For distribution lines, annual depreciation rates range from 1.7% to 5.0% based on expected asset lives up to 59 years.

I ask that you determine:

Was the wholesale replacement of all of Toronto Hydro’s equipment on Union Street necessary?

What was the justification for the replacement project?

Was there no economical way to extend the life of the existing system without wholesale replacement?

Toronto Hydro’s CEO appeared in a television interview with journalist Paul Bliss of CTV News approximately two days after the event. I have sought from CTV News the video clip of the interview. Although the clip is no longer available, I have confirmed with Mr. Bliss and others who saw the coverage the key points presented by Toronto Hydro’s CEO. As we now know from Hydro One’s “Customer Bulletin”, Toronto Hydro’s technical investigators had, immediately after the event, identified that the proximity of Toronto Hydro’s new feeder to the transmission line was the cause of the blackout. With input from Hydro One’s team, Toronto Hydro cut its poles and lowered its new lines to increase the clearance. Notwithstanding these facts, Toronto Hydro’s CEO indicated to Mr. Bliss and his audience that a problem with Hydro One’s equipment caused of the blackout. The CEO’s statement appears on its face to have been taken “without an obvious relationship to the facts or evidence” as per your authority.

I ask that you determine:

Why did Toronto Hydro’s CEO assert on CTV News that a problem with Hydro One’s transmission equipment caused the blackout when he either knew or ought to have known that Toronto Hydro’s construction caused the problem?

At page 8 of Hydro One’s “Customer Bulletin”, the report notes that “Although notification protocols exist, Hydro One received no notice and had no knowledge of these (Toronto Hydro’s feeder) construction activities.” Toronto Hydro’s historic practice generally complied with good utility practices by following by required inter-utility notification protocols. In its “Customer Bulletin” Hydro One also notes that, “(Toronto Hydro) has advised Hydro One that they are conducting an internal investigation on the incident.” In recent years, Toronto Hydro has accelerated its rate of capital spending by a factor of approximately four or more relative to the average spending rate a decade ago. Executive bonuses are now driven in part by the rate of capital spending. Historic notification protocols, whereby Toronto Hydro sought clearance from Hydro One to undertake construction work in proximity to Hydro One lines, extended the time required to complete projects due to the time required by Hydro One’s technical staff to review such plans. Toronto Hydro’s plan and plan implementation steps on Union Street appears to have violated “well established, known and accepted policies or procedures” as per your authority.

I would ask you to obtain and publish the “internal investigation” report prepared by Toronto Hydro and referred to by Hydro One and determine:

What procedural and operational changes within Toronto Hydro resulted in its failure to notify Hydro One about the feeder construction on and around Union Street? Who approved these procedural and operational changes?

Who approved the plan and supervised the Union Street construction that caused the flashover?

Was the root cause of Toronto Hydro’s failure to follow good utility practices with respect to the Union Street feeder construction part of a wider plan to sweep away barriers to accelerated capital spending?

What changes were implemented by Toronto Hydro in response to the event? Do Toronto Hydro’s current project planning and implementation practices conform to good utility practice for inter-utility coordination and worker safety?

I want to emphasize that I have no interest in any direct or indirect matter related to this other than simply as a private citizen and customer of Toronto Hydro. This open letter is posted to www(dot)tomadamsenergy(dot)com.

If there is any way I might assist your office or if you require any further clarification of my requests, please feel free to contact me.

Sincerely,

Tom Adams