In the modern city in the developed world, electricity is as ubiquitous and as essential as the air we breathe. Like the air, we don't appreciate how vital electricity is until it isn't there anymore.

Torontonians and 50 million other Ontarians and Americans came to recognize this fact during the great blackout in August, 2003 which hit Ontario and the North East United States. The cause of the black-out wasn't a terrorist attack or a catastrophic explosion in a major power plant. The black-out was the result of poor vegetation management on the part of First Energy in Northern Ohio and a fault in the company's alarm system which should have alerted its transmission control room of a looming problem on its system. In the end, the resulting blackout cost the economies of Canada and the United States some $10 billion dollars and inconvenienced millions of people.

Looking back, we were lucky in 2003. Just think what might have happened if the power outage had run on for a week, or more, or if it had occurred in the middle of the winter with the temperature hovering at -15°C or -20°C. All you have to do is to look at the power outage which resulted from the massive ice storm in Quebec and Eastern Ontario in 1998 to see that this event can actually happen.

Picture the vulnerability of two different people who are typical of many people living in Toronto or any other major urban centre.

The first is a woman who was interviewed a couple of days after the 2003 blackout who described how she spent almost three hours walking from her work in downtown Toronto to her residence which was an apartment on the 22nd floor of a high-rise building. It was a hot day and she was glad to reach her building. She then had to climb 22 storeys to get to her apartment and when she arrived she found that the lights, of course, could not come on. She was looking forward to having a shower since it had been a very tiring and hot walk from downtown. She turned on her shower and no water came out and when she went to the kitchen to turn the tap for a drink there was no water there either. And so, she sat down in the gathering gloom of the early evening, hot and thirsty. Imagine what could have happened if this had occurred in the middle of the winter with temperatures well below freezing?

The second example is hypothetical. Think of the situation of an elderly person with a heart condition living on the 15th floor of an apartment building in the middle of a massive power failure with no light, no heat or air conditioning, no refrigeration, no elevators to get out of the building, let alone back in. For this person, the power failure is more than an inconvenience, it is a life threatening situation.

A reliable and secure electricity system is vital to the lives of Torontonians as it is central to the functioning of every aspect of the urban economy. Everything relies on it - the use of our computers, withdrawing money from bank machines, the operation of food stores and restaurants, gas stations, sewer and water systems, security systems, traffic lights, the subways and street cars. The list is endless.

Without electricity, almost every aspect of urban life grinds to a halt.

We can survive without power for a day or two but not for long. When I talk about survival, I am not just talking about economic survival, I am also talking about people's lives. Yet, the city is not seized with the central importance of electricity reliability while the consumer is remarkably oblivious to their vulnerability. Two current examples illustrate this point.

The first is the issue around transmission and generation north of Toronto. It is anticipated that the GTA's population will rise by some two million over the next 20 years. Thousands of new residences have been built north of Toronto in the Newmarket area. Since the new home owners expect to have electricity, it is necessary to get additional power sources into this area. About three years ago, Hydro One proposed to increase its existing transmission capability from its main east/west transmission line north on their existing corridor through Markham to Newmarket. The proposed transmission upgrade set off a storm of protest in the Town of Markham which stalled Hydro One in its tracks.

A power developer then proposed a gas-fired generation plant in the Newmarket area as an alternative to the transmission concept. When the power developer presented the idea to the public, over a thousand local residents turned out to protest placing a plant in their community and so the power generator abandoned plans for this plant. The Ontario Power Authority is now playing a central role in working out an approach to meet the needs of the area which will include a mix of conservation efforts, transmission upgrades and generation. However, thousands of new homes continue to be built in the area north of Toronto, without elements of the plan fully in place, under the assumption that if they build it, the power will come.

The second example is in the City of Toronto which is facing a serious supply crunch as a result of massive redevelopment in the downtown area. A gas-fired generating plant is now being built in the Portlands in the face of major public opposition from community organizations in the southern part of the City, some of whom are several miles away from the plant. At the same time, a third transmission line is felt to be necessary to ensure the long term security and reliability of the power supply into Toronto. This is being vigorously opposed by some community groups and politicians at City Hall. Nimbyism is alive and well in Toronto as it is in many cities. People want to continue to use their cappuccino machines, home computers and plasma televisions and have their air conditioning systems but do not want to face up to the reality of generating and transmitting the power to them for their use.

If you look at the changing face of Toronto, it is clear that this challenge is not going to go away anytime soon Are we seeing the development of one or two storey homes along the waterfront or up University Avenue or in the Bay/Bloor areas? Not a chance, new development in the city is dominated by the construction of 20, 30, 40 even 60 storey condominium structures. What is the characteristic of these buildings - high electricity use and high levels of reliance on electricity for everything from elevators to climate control systems to electronic devices to basic lighting and refrigeration requirements.

In addition to residential use, the economy of the city runs on electricity. You can't have a vibrant financial sector, the kind of world class research facilities we have with the University of Toronto and the teaching hospitals on University Avenue or an entertainment district without a reliable power supply. The move of Toronto from an industrial to a service-based economy over the decades has certainly not reduced our demand for electricity.

Over the past five years, Toronto's peak power demand has varied from 4,500 to 5,000 MW depending on the heat of the summer. To put that in perspective, Toronto's peak demand is more than twice the power generation capacity of the power plants at Niagara Falls. A city like Toronto will have to start assuming responsibility for generating itself more of the power it needs for its own use.

Conservation is important but it doesn't power elevators, heat or cool buildings or run computers. We are going to have to be inventive if we are to produce power in a city like Toronto without generating higher levels of pollution and green house gases. What are some of the approaches?

Gas plants can be used but they create considerable neighbourhood opposition which tends to scare off politicians. As technology evolves, promising new alternatives are emerging which could suit the urban landscape. Alternatives such as:

  • Solar power as photovoltaic cells become rapidly more efficient and less costly;
  • Geothermal applications which could be useful in the heating or cooling of buildings;
  • Expanded use of existing district energy systems;
  • Stationary hydrogen power plants which emit only water; and
  • In decades to come, who knows, we may have small scale nuclear power plants based on new technology now under development, within cities.

One aspect I haven't addressed is electricity pricing. The days of cheap power are coming to an end. We need to face the inevitability of rising power costs over the next twenty years. The power from new generation sources will inevitably cost more than electricity produced by hydro, coal-fired or nuclear plants built and paid for decades ago.

What our economy needs to have is reliable power either lower in cost or at least competitive with the other areas of the world with which we are in competition in terms of providing goods and services. This is true for any city around the world.

Providing the necessary power more generally to the Province of Ontario to meet future demand is going to be an expensive proposition. The Integrated Power System Plan, which runs over 7,000 pages in length, submitted to the Ontario Energy Board at the end of August by the Ontario Power Authority has set the cost of building required generation, transmission and implementing an aggressive conservation program over the next twenty years at approximately $60 billion.

Cities need to be part of the solution in meeting their own future energy requirements. I worry that we will only face up to the true challenge we confront if we see the catastrophe caused by terrorist attacks on our essential transmission infrastructures or if we have a prolonged transmission system failure which lead to a loss of life and billions of dollars of economic losses.

Cities need to wake up to the need to become more self-reliant. We need to take more responsibility for meeting our power requirements and for looking for innovative ways to meet our electricity needs in the decades to come.