Storm lessons

ERIC SMITH | For the most part, McGill academics who study climate or electricity had the same reaction to the ice storm as the rest of us coping with life without heat or light.

Francesco Galiana is an expert in power systems with the Department of Electrical Engineering. For well over a week, his South Shore home was in the dark, and his principal reaction to the storm was to "wish I had a fireplace."

But he adds that there are lessons for Hydro-Québec to learn from the storm. "They will probably redesign their system," he said. "More supply will have to be built in certain areas."

Although Galiana believes there are ways the system can be made more reliable, he says that the storm's impact on the transmission system would have been the same "if it had hit any network in the world."

There has been a lot of talk since the storm hit of burying parts of the system. "The cost of this is very high," according to Galiana. He expects Hydro will study ways of making this option cheaper, but added that the transmission system which brings current in from James Bay "can't be buried."

Public interest in the question of climate change is certainly fuelled by extreme weather events like this month's storm, but the storm itself does not tell us much about what may be happening.

Lawrence Mysak, former director of McGill's Centre for Climate and Global Change Research, says he speculated that the storm might have had something to do with a particularly strong El Niño this year. Apparently, some of his colleagues disagreed, saying, "No, it's just a meteorological event."

Chris Green specializes in the economic impact of climate change. He is also of the view that "there is no known link between the storm and any man-made climate change and it's unlikely one will ever be made," he says.

Still, the aftermath of the storm may have a less direct bearing on Green's field of study. The storm has shown that "transport over long lines makes you more vulnerable."

As countries are seeking to reduce dependence on fossil fuels by looking at renewable sources of energy, the storm pointed up the risks of relying on distant sources of energy. "It was the transmission pylons falling that really threatened millions of people," says Green.

Indeed, Galiana expects Hydro will be looking at "the possibility of having small gas-fired power plants at strategic locations."

Architecture professor Peter Sijpkes has long had an interest in ice as a material. Two years ago, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the School of Architecture, Sijpkes and a group of students built a replica of the Pantheon out of snow. Just before the ice storm hit, he had put up a line that stretched from the school over a short distance to a pole on campus. He was planning to use it to experiment with freezing water and ice formations, but says, "The good Lord did the whole project!"

He says he was interested in the storm, in particular watching how "if we go just a little over the norm of ice build-up, we can't handle it. You cannot anticipate everything. We could conceivably have built hydro pylons to withstand this storm, but how difficult can it get?"

Sijpkes believes that lessons to be drawn from the storm are probably more social than structural. "As a society, I hope we will be more prepared and more sensitive." But he adds, "In comparison to what goes on in the world, let's put it in perspective."