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City Council approves $33 million leap into electrical smart grid (updated)

Straw vote was unanimous
Civic Centre
Civic Centre prior to its 2018 cladding makeover. David Helwig/SooToday

Sault Ste. Marie City Council has tonight granted permission to PUC Services Inc. to proceed with a $32.8-million upgrade of the local electrical distribution system, subject to buy-in from higher levels of government.

"I'm really proud of this piece of work, and the number of people who participated in it," said Mayor Christian Provenzano of the community-wide smart-grid initiative, believed to be the first of its scale in Canada.

"This is a tremendous opportunity," said Ward 1 Councillor Steve Butland, generally recognized as council's green-energy advocate. "This brings the Internet to our electrical system."

Mayor Provenzano was especially effusive in his praise of retiring Councillor Butland for never giving up on the project, which at one point was rejected by the PUC board.

PUC Services Inc. is wholly owned by the City of Sault Ste. Marie and approval is required for any single PUC capital expenditure in excess of $5 million or any capital expenditure in aggregate in excess of $10 million.

In a straw vote, city councillors unanimously approved the $32.8 million smart grid project on the condition that at least $9 million in funding is received from the federal and provincial governments.

PUC officials are hopeful they'll actually get $14 million from higher levels of government.

Based on the informal show of support, Mayor Provenzano cast the single shareholder's vote necessary for engineering work to start on the project.   

Rob Brewer, PUC president and chief executive officer, said the project's annual reduction of 2,804 tonnes of local carbon dioxide emissions will be equivalent to greenhouse gases produced by driving 600 passenger cars, or 6.9 million miles or by 420 homes.

Other advantages include decentralized generation and storage of electricity; minimizing the size and duration of power interruptions; and better voltage control, resulting in a four per cent energy savings.

Gaining support for the project has not been an easy task for proponent Glen Martin, the former Saultite who now heads Los Angeles-based microgrid development firm Infrastructure Energy, LLC.

After years of development work on the idea, PUC's board and management decided about two years ago to halt the original proposal, which would have cost $120 million and still wouldn't have covered the entire city.

Six months ago, Brewer stepped in to helm the local electrical and water utility.

The new boss quickly went to work on the smart grid file.

New funding opportunities materialized and Brewer said: "I think we've held the developer's feet to the fire in terms of the costs."

"What we have been working on for the last number of months is trying to get this project, which is a really good idea, and making it into something that is affordable in the town that we live in," Brewer told City Council tonight.

"I was there when the PUC board rejected the smart grid project because it didn't directly benefit the corporation enough," said Ward 3 Councillor Matthew Shoemaker.

"I'm glad to see that it's been re-invented. I know at that time a subcommittee was struck of the PUC board to work with city staff to look st the options to see if there could be more of a community benefit. Lo and behold, it's come back with only a corporate benefit and there are still community benefits to be tallied," Shoemaker said.

"It's going to directly benefit the PUC, and there's potential that it's going to create even more benefits for the community," he added.

A big advantage of the smart grid will be its ability to better control voltage delivered to customers.

That prompted Ward 5 Councillor Frank Fata to ask whether anyone might receive less voltage than they might need.

"No," insisted Brewer. "That's the beauty of this system. We're going to have hundreds of voltage regulators across the city that are going to ensure that the person gets a very correct amount of voltage for their system. It's actually going to be better than it is today because the band has significantly narrowed in terms of voltage."

Fata also asked about speculation that Ontario's new Conservative government might eliminate smart meters, asking whether that might affect the smart grid initiative.

"No, it doesn't affect this project, but I hope they do," Brewer said. "They've imposed a charge on the customers to pay for a meter system and it would be nice if it wasn't there for our customers. It's not something we have control over, though."

Councillor Shoemaker noticed that while PUC officials hope to get $14.3 million from higher levels of government, tonight's agreement stipulates sets a minimum of $9 million in government funding for the project to proceed.

If only $9 million is received, what kind of things will be cut? he wanted to know.

"Things like some of the data analysis that we would be able to do," Brewer responded. "We wouldn't necessarily have as robust a data analysis going on."

PUC would still be able to pass savings on to customers, but might not get as much data insight as it was hoping for, Brewer said.

If it proceeds, the smart grid initiative could result in $9 million in work for local contractors, 120 new direct and indirect jobs and an additional $250,000 for local tax coffers.

A downtown centre of excellence is also being proposed to showcase the Sault's expertise in smart grid technology, but so far no decision has been made on who would pay for it.

If the project goes ahead, engineering work on th smart grid will begin this fall and construction will start in the spring of 2019.

Project completion is scheduled for early 2020.


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David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans seven decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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