Aging hydro grid needs upgrade, biz leaders say in wake of Saturday’s deadly storm

Michelle Groulx
Michelle Groulx is the executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas. File photo

Saturday’s catastrophic windstorm highlights the need to shore up critical infrastructure such as power grids as climate change raises the spectre of more such events wreaking havoc in the future, local business leaders say.

The storm that wiped out power to nearly 200,000 customers in Ottawa and tens of thousands more across the river shows it’s time for governments to take the effects of global warming more seriously, said the head of an organization that represents thousands of mainstreet retailers in the capital.

As of late Tuesday afternoon, about 74,000 customers remained without power in the city, and Hydro Ottawa officials said it could be days before the grid is fully restored.

“When we’re talking about things like pandemics, we hope that our government does more to plan ahead, and I would say the same thing for climate resilience and these kinds of disasters,” Michelle Groulx, the executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas, told OBJ on Tuesday. 

“It's going to cost money for the city and for the province, but … one day it’s going to cost more to keep repairing it than to actually do something else.”

Burying hydro lines

Noting that the City of Ottawa is currently crafting a climate resilience strategy, Groulx suggested the plan should tackle the issue of how to make the region’s power grid less susceptible to widespread outages that forced retailers, restaurants and other small businesses to shut their doors, costing them thousands of dollars in lost sales and spoiled merchandise.

She floated the prospect of burying power lines after hydro poles across the city snapped like twigs during winds that reached 120 km/h. Groulx said that while such an effort would be an “expensive undertaking,” it’s “something that we really should be considering as a city.”

Stewart Cattroll, the co-owner of a Freshii restaurant in Kanata that lost power for a full day after Saturday’s storm, agrees.

"I think we need to have a conversation in Ottawa and other parts of Canada about how we can make our infrastructure more resilient to prevent these kinds of incidents happening in the future."

“I think we need to have a conversation in Ottawa and other parts of Canada about how we can make our infrastructure more resilient to prevent these kinds of incidents happening in the future,” he said. 

“We can’t have the entire economy of the city shut down for four days when there’s a major storm. There’s a lot of smart people out there, and it’s something we need to turn our mind to – how we harden our infrastructure against these kinds of extreme weather events, which are unfortunately becoming more common in the Ottawa area.”

Ottawa Board of Trade president and CEO Sueling Ching said governments at all levels need to come up with a co-ordinated relief plan for small businesses that are being hit hard by climate change.

“We need to be looking at climate action in a serious way,” she said. “With increased instances like this, what are the support mechanisms when something does happen like this?”

Groulx also said the city and province should consider making it mandatory for businesses such as gas stations that are deemed essential services to have backup generators on site in the event of a blackout.

Dozens of filling stations across the region were unable to provide fuel in the aftermath of Saturday’s storm, leading to long lineups at pumps that were up and running.

“The fact that this many gas stations were out of power is quite scary, when you think about it,” Groulx said.