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OREC: Ottawa Tornadoes Spotlight the Need for Distributed Electricity Production

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The devastating tornadoes that hit parts of Ottawa and Gatineau last Friday showed the need for a more resilient, distributed electricity system, the Ottawa Renewable Energy Co-op (OREC) concludes, in an after-action blog report on the impacts of the storm.

Local media originally reported two or three twisters in the Arlington Woods neighbourhood, suburban Dunrobin, and the Mont-Bleu area of Gatineau. More recent news reports are referring to a half-dozen tornadoes.

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In the immediate crisis, 10 of OREC’s 17 local solar projects were shut down with the grid, and a total of nine solar panels on two projects were damaged by hail but continued producing electricity, reports Communications Manager Aaron Thornell. By Monday, all 17 installations were back online, and the co-op was reporting about C$3,948 in lost revenue—about a half-percent of its annual total—plus $2,000 in equipment damage that was covered by insurance.

But while discussion at a weekend green energy event in Ottawa immediately turned to climate change as a factor in severe storms, Thornell points to another local issue brought into focus by the tornadoes. “The length of the power outages that some parts of the City of Ottawa experienced (and are still experiencing, in some cases) demonstrates the fragility of our centralized electrical grid,” he writes. A map of the city’s distribution system shows how reliant it is on two transmission stations, on Merivale Road in the west and Hawthorne Road in the east. “During the storm, Merivale TS was significantly damaged, resulting in a loss of power for most of the city’s west end.

The solution to the city’s “grid fragility” is to shift toward distributed generation, Thornell states. According to a 2015 study, “only 5% of energy consumed in Ottawa was generated within the city’s geographic boundaries.” And another study by the non-profit Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow (QUEST) “shows that most of the money put towards energy in many municipalities, in particular those with large populations like Ottawa’s, leaves those municipalities.”

For all those reasons, he concludes, “increased development of distributed, renewable energy generation must become a major goal for the City of Ottawa, as well as the province of Ontario and Canada more broadly. A shift towards a distributed generation electricity system provides incredible resiliency for the grid, increases security for the city, reduces the flow of energy dollars outside of the municipality, and lowers greenhouse gas emissions.