A Decade Ago Everything Went Black: A Look Back At The Blackout of 2003! Part 1

August 14th marked the 10th anniversary of the great blackout of 2003.

Memorable for most, it was unforgettable for me as I was then the Executive Director of Share the Warmth, a homeless prevention NGO I had founded 8 years earlier dedicated to combating energy poverty for low income Ontarians.

This event was the perfect illustration to all Ontarians, including the province’s decision makers, of what it was like to live, even for a little while, without power; unable to have available basic electricity to keep lights on, food fresh or even cook meals.

The blackout offered a universal experience to illustrate the powerlessness (pun intended) many low income households contend with, not just for one day, but every day!

And in winter the stakes would have been far greater and more dire.

Opinion Editorial August 15 2003: The Blackout of 2003, What If It Was Winter?

Much like Woodstock, those of us who were there, and even more who were not, will be telling stories of that summer evening in 2003 when the lights went out across Ontario. They won’t speak of anarchy & chaos, because, for the most part, that’s not what they experienced. CNN and innumerable Canadian news agencies extolled the virtues of “Toronto the Good” and the “Canadian way” in which Ontarians “pulled together” in the face of what could easily have been a far worse disaster than it actually was.

For many, this epic loss of power simply meant a long walk home on a hot summer evening, stargazing with others unable to utilize mass transit.  Others left work early and elected to wile away the hours at one of the many summer patios doing brisk business that evening.  Homeless people, drivers and passersby spent hours spontaneously directing traffic until emergency forces relieved them. Rather than evoking panic, the blackout seemed to bring people together. In retrospect, the evening unfolded much like a dream, a mid-summer night’s dream.

Now imagine for a moment that this dreamy August night was actually a cold January evening. What if the biggest blackout in North American history did not happen in the summer? Imagine, if it had been winter?

How different would things have been? Canada is the second coldest country on the earth. The median temperature in Ontario during the month of January 2003 was -8 degrees Celsius.  At that temperature, how differently might Ontarians have reacted to a province-wide blackout?

How would households, business, commuters, emergency forces and the homeless react in the face of a sudden and complete absence of power during the sub zero temperatures that typify an Ontario winter?

Most of us, one hopes, will never need to know the horror of a powerless winter. However, for too many Ontarians, every winter threatens to be a blackout winter filled with hopelessness, despair and often homelessness!

In Ontario, over 50,000 households have their power cut each year. That means that one household’s power is cut every ten minutes, every hour, every day, 365 days a year.

This group includes thousands of families, seniors, disabled and terminally ill households. Their power is cut for many reasons. During the long winter months, families whose parent(s) have lost their jobs, seniors living alone on shrinking pensions, and people no longer physically capable of work due to illness are just

some of those forced to make increasingly impossible choices between eating and heating and between medication and heating.

Former Premiere of  Ontario, Ernie Eves, stated that “energy is a necessity of life”, and instituted an unsustainable solution that saw the price of electricity frozen at $.03 per kwh. The desperation of a conservative government capping a commodity they themselves deregulated only a few months earlier demonstrates the magnitude to which winter affects even the best and worst laid plans. With the imminent removal of the cap (Spring,04),

Premiere McGuinty has done taxpayers a service, while making the average energy consumer more vulnerable. If it is a free market for energy that we must have and Ontario will not use its wealth to protect its citizens from it, then Premiere McGuinty must use a comprehensive approach to adequately protect consumers, particularly, though not exclusively during winter.

Proven and established models for protecting energy consumers in the US must be studied to find the right mix for Ontario. From the possible establishment of an energy provider of last resort, for consumers unable to find an energy company willing to provide affordable services, to the creation of an emergency energy fund, for province-wide emergency assistance and crisis prevention, it will be the successful blending of such models which will determine the extent to which Onatrio’s consumers will truly be protected.

In balancing a regulatory framework that encourages competition and investment but places primary consideration on the absolute necessity of energy in the everyday lives of Ontarians, Premiere McGuinty, fairly or unfairly has an immense challenge before him.

Whatever his chosen course, this “kinder and gentler” Liberal government will no doubt realize, as did Mr. Eves, as did we all that August night, electricity is a basic necessity of life and we all need it to live.

The Aftermath

I used the blackout of 2003 to market our message to donors and to the government over the next year.  It led me to more directly and aggressively lobby the then new provincial Liberal government to enact new legislation to protect energy poor low-income Ontarians.

In my next post I will briefly examine some of the ways we did just that and, ultimately, how we changed Ontario for the better.

Originally posted: Monday, 19 August 2013