Power utilities grapple with latest climate threat: catastrophic winds

Hydro Ottawa's president and CEO has made two things clear: the power utility couldn't have anticipated the destructive power of Saturday's derecho storm, and it's unsure how to guard against such violent weather in the future.

Saturday's storm toppled transmission towers and left thousands in the dark

Destructive storm highlights need to bolster power infrastructure

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Toward the end of a virtual news conference Monday afternoon, Hydro Ottawa's Bryce Conrad made two things clear: the power utility couldn't have anticipated the destructive power of Saturday's storm, and it's unsure how to guard against such violent weather in the future.

"We don't really know what the hell hit us," the plain-spoken president and CEO said. "But whatever it was, it took down composite poles that are 65 feet tall."

Those composite hydro poles, like the ones lining Hawthorne Road in the city's southeast, are supposed to be more durable than the wooden ones they're gradually replacing. But the poles were no match for Saturday's storm, now identified by climatologists as a derecho.

    Likewise, winds measured at up to 120 km/h toppled at least four of Hydro One's high-voltage transmission towers that feed the city.

    "Those are meant to withstand ice loading and massive winds, and those collapsed like children's toys," Conrad said.

    The scale and scope of the damage to Ottawa's power grid eclipses the aftermath of 2018's tornadoes and even 1998's ice storm, according to officials, who admitted they were not only taken by surprise, but unsure how to manage a repeat.

    "I would love to tell you I've got a perfect plan so this never happens again," Conrad said, suggesting neither he nor Hydro Ottawa has such a detailed strategy.

    Ottawa residents survey storm's damage to homes and streets

    4 months ago
    Duration 2:56
    Residents and crews in the Ottawa-Gatineau region worked to clean up the damage from Saturday's devastating wind storm, as city officials warned Tuesday the effort is expected to take weeks.

    2019 study noted wind risk

    In fact, Hydro Ottawa has carefully considered the potential for damage caused by high winds.

    In a 2019 report, engineering consultants Stantec assessed a range of climate-related risks to Hydro Ottawa's distribution system — everything from extreme heat and cold to invasive species — and identified extreme winds as the single greatest threat to power lines, particularly those running north-south.

    We need a more sophisticated grid.- Alexandra Mallett, Carleton University

    While the final report notes such wind speeds are relatively rare, it also observes "Hydro Ottawa personnel have noted wind intensity and frequency has increased in recent years."

    The report also offers a case study of a previous "high wind event" in May 2018, when some 30,000 Hydro Ottawa customers lost power.

    Saturday's storm knocked out power for 180,000, or about half the utility's customers, and snapped or toppled 163 hydro poles across the city. By Tuesday afternoon, even with crews from numerous jurisdictions working around the clock, 74,000 customers remained in the dark.

    On Wednesday, researchers with Western University's Northern Tornadoes Project ruled out the possibility that a tornado hit Ottawa on Saturday.

    No simple solutions

    On Monday, Conrad suggested there are no simple solutions when it comes to protecting Hydro Ottawa's distribution system from wild weather, and there are certainly no cheap ones.

    "Burying the infrastructure is not necessarily the answer, buying more expensive poles is not necessarily the right answer. I wish I had the right answer," he said, pointing out that in Ottawa's Trend-Arlington neighbourhood, which was devastated by a tornado in 2018, most of the power lines are buried.

    Customers in the area lost electricity when the tornado damaged a nearby transmission station.

    A Hydro One worker surveys a transmission tower toppled during Saturday’s storm in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

    Alexandra Mallett, an associate professor at Carleton University's school of public policy, agrees there are no simple solutions.

    "We need a more resilient and nimble system," said Mallett, whose focus is sustainable energy policy. "We need a more sophisticated grid."

    Mallett believes the days of "pushing electrons" through high-voltage wires to local distribution systems are numbered.

    She believes a better system would allow homeowners to generate and store their own electricity, giving them the ability to feed it back to the grid. 

    That could help establish more self-sufficient "micro-grids" that are less susceptible to widespread power outages, said Mallett, who was still without power at her home in Glabar Park on Tuesday.

    Mother Nature calling the shots

    She also advocates for improved "demand-side management," which would help Hydro Ottawa avoid the peaks and troughs typical of energy consumption patterns in a big city.

    "Hydro Ottawa needs to take a step back and say OK, if these events are happening more often — and the reality is they are — then they need to get ahead of the game and get moving on this now," Mallett said.

    Utility workers use bucket lifts to repair lines along Hawthorne Road on Tuesday after Saturday’s major storm caused significant damage to the city’s power distribution network. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

    David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada, agreed that power utilities will have to adapt, but warned most man-made solutions come up short. 

    "They are scratching their heads to wonder, how can we engineer our way out of these things? And you know, nature has all the trump cards," Phillips said.

    "I think we should do what we can to protect ourselves as much as we can, but there is a certain limit to how protective we can be."


    Alistair Steele

    Writer and editor

    After spending more than a decade covering Ottawa city hall for CBC, Alistair Steele is now a feature writer and digital copy editor at