Toronto floods expose vulnerable infrastructure

Electricity transmission system rerouted to serve central city
Monday, July 15, 2013
By Barbara Carss

Flooding, power outages and a precarious electricity grid presented challenges for building owners and managers in Toronto and neighbouring Mississauga, Ont., last week when an intense storm hit late Monday afternoon. Approximately 120 millimetres of rain fell within a few hours in some areas, causing serious spinoff repercussions when critical hydro transmission facilities were swamped and unable to function.

As of Friday, Toronto’s downtown and midtown relied on a somewhat makeshift transmission system rerouted through the Leaside transmission station on the east side of the city. Repairs are now underway at the Manby transmission station, which normally shares the task of delivering electricity from the west.

“This is a temporary measure and it puts a strain on the entire grid supplying the Toronto region,” explained the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of the Greater Toronto Area in one of several emergency bulletins it sent to its members during the week to urge them to cut electricity loads and be ready for possible rotating blackouts.

Hydro One – Ontario’s electricity transmission purveyor – estimates up to 500,000 customers lost service at the height of the crisis Monday night. This included much of Mississauga, west and central Toronto, the downtown business core and the Toronto Transit Commission’s entire subway system.

“It was all happening between about 4:45 p.m. and 7 p.m., and that is a particularly busy time downtown. It was at the end of the day and a lot of people were just leaving their workplace,” reports Lachlan MacQuarrie, vice-president with Oxford Properties Group. “Luckily, our building operations staff and all our core operating teams were still on-site and could quickly start dealing with the issues.”

Just a little more than two weeks after flood waters affected Oxford’s Calgary-based portfolio, varying degrees of storm-related impacts occurred in its Toronto commercial and residential buildings. Most notably, the 16-storey, 260,000-square-foot Sun Life Financial Centre on Bloor Street West was without electricity for nearly two days, shutting tenants out of their offices until Wednesday.

“We learn from every event and are constantly sharing what we’ve learned. Certainly, we have more sandbags today than we did a year ago, and we think about the impact of water on equipment like escalators differently now that we’ve experienced it,” says MacQuarrie. “Our operating teams are all capable of responding rapidly to emergencies and we prepare to deal with a range of situations. They know what steps to take, and in what order, to ensure the best outcome.”

Flooding occurred downtown Monday night, particularly in the extensive underground pedestrian and shopping concourse network that links most of the major commercial buildings of the financial core. However, power was restored and most businesses reopened Tuesday morning. Most of the subway system, with the exception of a four-station stretch at the western end of the Bloor line, was also back in service for the morning rush.

Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) advised the general public to turn off all but essential lights, set air conditioners no lower than 26 C and avoid using power-intensive appliances like dishwashers, washers, laundry dryers and swimming pool pumps – an appeal for conservation still being made on Friday. Commercial real estate operators likewise curbed power use for lighting, cooling and non-essential escalators – actions that BOMA Toronto and programs like Toronto CivicAction’s Race to Reduce already widely encourage.

“The calls for reduction are not something we find difficult,” says MacQuarrie. “These are things we typically do as part of our conservation and demand management strategy.”

Perhaps more disturbingly, the week’s events give heed to long-standing concerns about aging municipal infrastructure and the capacity of Toronto’s transmission grid.

The flood at the Manby station is the second major incident in the past three years, following an explosion and fire in its breaker system in July 2010 that caused extensive damage and power loss for 240,000 customers.

“It really highlights the issue of reliability of the system,” says Chris Conway, BOMA Toronto’s president and chief staff officer. “Something seemingly minor could cause a major disruption and put the system down for quite awhile.”

The IESO’s most recent 18-Month Outlook Update, released in late May, reports that Hydro One will complete planned upgrades at its Manby, Leaside and Hearn transmission stations in Toronto by the end of 2014.

“Transmission transfer capability in Toronto and its vicinity is expected to be sufficient to supply load in this area with a margin to allow for planned outages,” the report states.

Last week’s storm was clearly not in the realm of commonly expected events, yet obviously not the only such event in very recent times.

“Every once in awhile something will happen that’s outside the boundary of what people expect and you have to have a plan to deal with it,” asserts Conway. “It happened in Calgary. It happened here. It will happen somewhere else.”

Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management and Building Strategies & Sustainability magazines.

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