Outgoing Hydro Ottawa Chair Casts Doubt on City Net Zero Plan

As Mayor Mark Sutcliffe marks the anniversary of his election to office this week, one theme has emerged: short Ottawa City Council meetings, with much of the time allotted to approving reports put forward by sub-committees. However, this was not the case today.

The Ottawa City Council meeting began with a briefing from Ottawa Hydro by Board Chair Jim Durrell and President and Chief Executive Officer Bryce Conrad. The briefing on the utility’s financial report for 2022 was initially scheduled to take place in June but was postponed due to labour unrest. Durrell also used the time to address company developments and the now-resolved workers’ strike.

The outgoing chair noted the luck he has had in his career but said, “People do not really give a lot of attention to hydro; you turn on your lights, and they work.” He said that residents don’t think about hydro unless there is a natural disaster.

More interestingly, though, were Durrell’s comments on Ottawa City Council’s climate goals. He said that Council had set “very aggressive goals to be net zero” and “frankly, without dramatic change, you haven’t got a hope in hell of making them in the times you’ve allotted.”

Durrell suggested that Ottawa Hydro could help move the city closer to its targeted goals by assisting in the retrofitting of buildings. Still, he said that the current goals and timeline are “aspirational but not realistic.”

Addressing the strike by Hydro employees, Durrell pointed out that nobody likes work disruption, but throughout the 85 days, the company was able to keep the Hydro system going without fail.

Councillor Shawn Menard asked about the retrofitting of buildings and how the city can improve progress. Durrell responded that the city should rely more on Hydro Ottawa and less on private companies, as is done with other city infrastructure projects that have been successful. He noted that Hydro Ottawa is a city-owned company. Menard also candidly pointed out that, in his opinion, the strike discussion did not include the union representatives, so Council was only getting a portion of the story.

Sean Devine questioned Durrell’s statement that the city’s system works well. The councillor for Knoxdale-Merivale said that if he were to replay Durrell’s remarks to residents of his ward, there would be a lot of eye-rolling.

Councillor Theresa Kavanaugh pointed out that some residents of Bay Ward spent over nine days without power during the 2022 wind storm and up to 15 days in 2022 without power. Kavanaugh stated, “Hydro is no longer boring. It’s become interesting for all of us.” While expressing appreciation for proactive work done by Hydro Ottawa, including tree trimming to prevent future failures (most of Ottawa’s power grid is run on above-ground poles), Kavanaugh asked about the strategy for burying power lines and what kind of plan there is.

CEO Byrce Conrad said the planning was still in its infancy, but about half a billion dollars worth of power infrastructure would be put forward in the next planning application.

Councillors Darouze and Hubley thanked Durrell for his decades of service with the city of Ottawa as he steps toward retirement.

The meeting continued with Councillor Marty Carr bringing forward a motion that would help with the flow of information during flood events and, in addition, having a central resource on the city website for flood preparedness. The motion would also direct staff to explore a system to better share data with residents during a natural disaster. The Carr motion was carried.

Council is scheduled to meet again on November 8, 2023.