Toronto condo's backup power generators go live, 4 years after the ice storm

The Grange condominium on the West Mall is the first and only building to comply with new guidelines requiring sustained back-up power in case of a prolonged area-wide power outage.

After blackouts in 2013, city worked on new rules for back-up power in high-rise buildings

James Kennedy, president of Magnolia Generation, stands in front of four 60-kilowatt natural-gas turbine generators that were installed on the roof of the The Grange Condominium at 551 the West Mall in Etobicoke. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC News)

A year after Toronto revamped guidelines recommending that high-rise residential condos and apartments have long-term backup power systems, only one building in the city appears to have complied.

The Grange Condominium at 551 The West Mall in Etobicoke is equipped with four 60-kilowatt natural gas turbine generators. They were installed over the summer on the roof and are now online.

"This is the first multi-residential building that meets this new guideline," said James Kennedy, president of Magnolia Generation, which did the installation and has a service agreement with the property management company Crossbridge.

Four generators were installed over the summer on the roof of The Grange Condominium at 551 The West Mall in Etobicoke. They not only supply electricity, but heat and hot water. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC News)

The new guidelines were inspired by the severe summer thunderstorms and the ice storm of 2013.

Under the city's old guidelines, multi-unit residential buildings (MURBs) only needed to have backup power for emergencies. That meant enough power to evacuate the building in the event of a fire, sending the elevators to the ground, activating hallway and stairway lights and fire suppression systems. 

Typically, these emergency power systems run on diesel generators and provide anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours of electricity.

Unlike an emergency power system, the generators atop The Grange provide sustained power for ongoing occupancy, Kennedy says.

"Meaning if there's a long-term outage people can stay in their residence for an unlimited amount of time, get running water, heat, elevator service and power to the common elements," said Kennedy, adding that kind of sustained backup is critical for vulnerable people, such as the disabled and elderly.

"On average we have a dozen power outages a year. Some people, they can't get down the stairs. And if the power's out for a couple hours they don't have running water. They don't have heat."

Meghna Mudaliar, who lives in a CityPlace condo, knows what that is like. Residents in the Spadina Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard West area had to deal with four power outages over the summer and fall of 2016.

"I've lived here for over a year so it's been like three or four times I've had to hike up 26 floors with the power outages that happened," said Mudaliar.

"I'm lucky. There are others on the 50th or 55th floor."

Meghna Mudaliar lives in a CityPlace condo near Spadina and Lake Shore Boulevard West. Like thousands of residents in the area she had to hike up the stairs during four power outages over the summer of 2016. (Chris Dunseith/CBC News)

Under the new city rules, condo residents like her would have not had to take the stairs.

Fernando Carou, the senior engineer for the city's Community Energy Planning, helped develop the new minimum backup power guidelines for MURBs, which came in October 2016.

"We're all affected by power outages, but what we found out in 2013 was that residents in high-rise buildings were particularly vulnerable because of their reliance on elevators, mechanical ventilation, even keyless-entry systems," Carou told CBC Toronto.

As more and more condos are built, each one higher than the next, and as extreme weather events and aging infrastructure mean area-wide outages are more frequenct and severe, Carou says the new guidelines provide a roadmap for condo corporations, management companies and developers to improve their backup power systems.

"It's different from emergency power, which just helps you get out of the building. In the case of a prolonged outage you want to stay in the building," Carou said.

But while Ontario's building code mandates that any building over five storeys has to have a backup generator for emergency power, there is no current code or standard that addresses sustained, area-wide power outages in MURBs, during which there is no emergency in the building.

Carou says the new guidelines are to fill that gap, but they are entirely voluntary. The Grange Condominium is the first of an estimated 2,500 high-rise residential buildings in the city.

Fernando Carou, senior engineer for the City of Toronto's Community Energy Planning, helped develop the new minimum backup power guidelines for MURBs, which came out October 2016. (LinkedIn)

"It's the first instance of compliance that we know of in an existing building. We don't know of any building that is being built yet to be in compliance," says Carou, who added while the guidelines are voluntary now that could change.

"We would have to look at the tools under the City of Toronto Act,"  he said.

Cost is a big factor in complying with the guidelines, says Kennedy of Magnolia, adding that the Grange retrofit cost about $2-million.

In that case, Magnolia fronted the capital cost to Crossbridge in exchange for a service agreement that would pay the company for the electricity used by the condo at market rates.

Kennedy says similar arrangements are being looked at for city-owned multi-residential buildings, such as those run by Toronto Community Housing.

That could mean that The Grange could be the first of many.

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.