A lot of things were delayed by last Thursday’s massive power outage: baseball games, shopping trips& the long-anticipated Ontario election (and not just because Ernie Eves had been scheduled to be nominated in his riding on the night that the lights went out). Unless Eves has a penchant for committing political suicide, the chances of Ontarians going to the polls this fall now range from slim to none.

I’ve heard several commentators say that it’s unfair, or even “opportunistic” to blame the Ontario government for a power failure so massive in nature — especially when it appears to have originated on the American side of Lake Erie. But, let’s be realistic. The fact is that the deregulation policies that are clearly to blame for the failure of the electricity grid are only a few more years advanced in the United States than they are in Ontario. It could have started here. The next one just might start here if we don’t change our policy direction.

Ontario NDP leader Howard Hampton didn’t start talking about public power when the grid failed; he’d been talking about the issue for years. He’s been as consistent as he has been forceful. He’s written a compelling book on the subject. His party’s campaign is based on a slogan that grew out of the campaign to save the public hydro system.

Cries of opportunism just don’t wash. In fact, if ever there was a time that a politician had earned the right to be heard on an issue, it is this politician on this issue.

In a media release distributed on Friday, Hampton noted that “the Conservatives and Liberals have been playing a risky game with our hydro system — and now it’s collapsing like a house of cards. The blackout demonstrates the public power system Ontarians have built together over the last 100 years is more essential today than ever. It’s too essential to be put in the hands of companies that put profit before reliability.”

Writing in the Toronto Star, Hampton suggested that we “not blame the Americans for the economic damage and great inconvenience suffered here. Ontario’s portion of the blackout originated at Queen’s Park eight years ago, with two decisions made by the new Conservative government. The first was a commitment to eventually deregulate our electricity marketplace and privatize Ontario Hydro in order to follow the Americans into a fully market-based, private sector, profit-driven electricity system. The second decision was to cancel all the energy efficiency programs put in place by the NDP government during the previous four years. After all, the Conservatives reasoned, private power suppliers want to sell more, not less, energy. Continuing those energy efficiency programs would have depressed the market value of Ontario Hydro’s generating assets to potential private sector buyers. The Conservatives were hoping to scoop billions of dollars by selling off our electricity system and use the money to finance even deeper tax cuts.”

Hampton goes on to say that “at 4:10 p.m., Thursday, these fateful decisions came home to roost. Ontario has not had enough domestic generating capacity to meet peak summer and winter demand for more than five years and was unavoidably importing about 2,000 megawatts from New York at the time of the U.S. system failure. Because of this chronic dependence on imported power — which has at times reached over 4,000 megawatts — Ontario’s transmission grid got caught up in the cascade of blackouts that rippled across the northeastern part of the continent in a mere nine seconds.”

In 1999, David Nevius of the North American Electric Reliability Council, told a congressional committee hearing that the competitive system was the cause of the comparatively minor blackouts that the U.S. was then experiencing.

“We may not be able to keep the interstate electricity grids operating reliably for much longer. [It used to be that] transmission system users and operators cooperated voluntarily to ensure reliability. Now, however, they are competitors and don’t have the same incentives to cooperate.”

Events like those that occurred last week may well give producers the incentive to cooperate — or they may give governments the incentive to force them to cooperate.

Certainly, Eves and Energy Minister John Baird have seen the light (or lack thereof) regarding the need for conservation to avoid further outages. Considering their governments earlier decision to cancel conservation programs that were destined to reduce demand by up to one third, this is too little, too late. Indeed, you could even call it “opportunism.”


Scott Piatkowski

Scott Piatkowski is a former columnist for rabble.ca. He wrote a weekly column for 13 years that appeared in the Waterloo Chronicle, the Woolwich Observer and ECHO Weekly. He has also written for Straight...