Keeping the lights on: How Hydro Ottawa prevents and responds to power outages

Planning, preparation and execution minimize inconvenience to customers

The occasional power outage is a fact of life in a city such as Ottawa, where storms can bring strong winds and heavy precipitation.

In most cases, it’s a short inconvenience. But for some of the city’s more vulnerable residents, the loss of electricity presents a health and safety risk. With this in mind, Hydro Ottawa has a carefully formulated approach to power restoration that begins well before the lights go out.

“It really starts with how you build and design your distribution system,” says Lance Jefferies, Hydro Ottawa’s Chief Electricity Distribution Officer.

He explains that Hydro Ottawa’s approach to power recovery is built around three main themes: planning, preparation and execution.

Planning

The first steps that Hydro Ottawa takes to prepare for power outages are preventative and built into the city’s energy distribution system. Infrastructure is designed to be storm resilient, with multiple supply paths into a neighbourhood.

Hydro Ottawa then uses technology to augment the effectiveness of its distribution system. The utility provider has a high-tech control centre that enables staff to monitor, control and operate the entire system. The control centre gives Hydro Ottawa complete visibility of the distribution system, making it easy to act quickly when issues arise.

“We really build with the end customer in mind,” says Mr. Jefferies. “We are committed to providing a safe, reliable and cost-effective electricity supply to all of our residential and commercial customers.”

In addition to its extensive monitoring system, Hydro Ottawa also has a robust asset management program in place. Employees are regularly deployed to “check the pulse” of hydro infrastructure, performing repairs and replacing equipment that’s nearing the end of its life. Hydro Ottawa aims to swap out older hardware just before it breaks down.

As part of Hydro Ottawa’s ongoing maintenance activities, crews regularly trim trees to reduce the risk of branches falling on power lines – a leading cause of outages.

Preparation

To prepare for power outages, Hydro Ottawa has personnel on duty at all times. Staff are trained to deal with any type of situation and equipped with high-quality tools and supplies “so that when they are called to duty, they can do what they need to do,” says Mr. Jefferies.

However, there are some factors outside of Hydro Ottawa’s control – namely, the weather.

Hydro trucks repairing a series of linesWith that in mind, the utility has a team that’s constantly monitoring the region’s weather patterns and can ready repair crews when it sees that a significant storm is approaching.

During major outages, such as the 1998 ice storm, Hydro Ottawa is also able to call upon members of the North Atlantic Mutual Assistance Group. This network gives member companies access to other utility providers, who deploy their own employees to other cities – and at times countries – to help restore power.

Hydro Ottawa crews have also been called upon to help other communities, including this fall when 26 local employees were dispatched to Georgia to help restore power after Hurricane Irma.

Execution

Before a large storm rolls in, staff are often sent home to rest, since they may be required to work tirelessly on restoring the city’s power should it go out.

“When you see them in action in storm restoration is really when they’re at their best,” says Mr. Jefferies of Hydro Ottawa’s employees. “They’ll give up their own family Christmases, their own Easter dinners and family time to restore power. They really do care.”

When Hydro Ottawa arrives on the scene to restore power, crews typically work through three phases. The first priority is to assess the damage and make the scene safe, for both the general public and employees. Next, they communicate information about the outage across several channels. Hydro Ottawa maintains an outage map on its website, which shows details of an outage including customers affected and the estimated time of restoration. It’s also available through the Hydro Ottawa mobile app.

Hydro Ottawa is also active on social media, especially Twitter. As the face of technology changes so does the face of customer communications. Hydro Ottawa uses videos, drone footage and livestreaming from the scene of outages to more proactively engage its customers and media.

Hydro Ottawa also places emphasis on communicating the details of outages to the local media as well as the city councillors of affected wards.

The final step is restoring power. During widespread outages, Hydro Ottawa prioritizes restoring power to the largest segment of the population through its main supply lines first. It also works closely with the City of Ottawa to ensure that critical infrastructure and the most vulnerable people in the city, including the elderly and those in the hospital, have their power restored quickly.

What causes power outages?

  • Loss of supply from the provincial grid;

  • Adverse weather, including lightning, heavy winds and precipitation;

  • Vehicle accidents that damage hydro poles;

  • Falling trees and branches on power lines;

  • Animal contact with power lines; and

  • Equipment failure.