Hydro One to Build Tech Center (UPDATED)

By John Swartz

Hydro One is moving ahead with construction of a control center in Orillia’s West Ridge. The announcement was made Monday afternoon at the Waterfront Centre at the Port of Orillia.

“Today I’m pleased to announce that Hydro One will invest $150 million in our new Ontario Grid Control Centre here in the City of Orillia. This innovative, state-of-the-art facility will be Hydro One’s key facility in distributing and transmitting power across the province of Ontario,” Hydro One’s acting chief operating officer, Darlene Bradley told the packed Waterfront Centre.

Construction will start later this year and she said they will use local suppliers during construction. When operational there will be 150 to 250 jobs. Gayle Jackson, Orillia’s CAO, told the audience it equates to an economic impact of $400 million.

The new center will replace one in Barrie, which opened in 2005. When it opens the entire network of 29,000 km high voltage lines, 274 transmission stations and network connections to Quebec and Manitoba, New York, Michigan and Minnesota will be monitored and controlled from Orillia, linking 1.4 million customers to generating plants ranging from nuclear to solar.

The control center also operates transmission equipment, responding to alarms and contingencies with the ability to restore and reroute power. There are several job classifications including customer service, engineering, operations technology, training, process and business planning.

“Orillia is an ideal location for our control center. It’s located in great facility when it comes to proximity to our existing infrastructure, key highways are close by and it’s in good proximity to our facilities where we will be moving 150 to 250 staff; high skilled workers that will run the distribution network to supply the electricity across the province of Ontario,” said Bradley.

The control center is one third of the facilities Hydro One intends to build in Orillia. The other two, a provincial warehouse and regional operation center are part of the deal and subject to the application for the sale of Orillia Power Corporation’s distribution business, which the Ontario Energy Board has yet to OK, while the control center was a separate component.

“This particular project, although significantly tied to the negotiations, is not tied to the OEB approval,” Mayor Steve Clarke told SUNonline/Orillia.

“This is strictly investment from Hydro One. The money that we would receive for the purchase Orillia Power distribution, and I want to remind everybody we are keeping the generation, and that Legacy Fund will go into an investment fund in perpetuity, plus the lower distribution rate, plus the investment in the provincial warehouse and the regional operation center are definitely tied to the OEB hearings.”

Mayor Steve Clarke and Hydro One acting chief operating officer Darlene Bradley

In the mayor’s remarks to the audience of representatives of most of Orillia’s institutions from the post-secondary institutions, to the chamber, CDC, business owners and political representatives from surrounding municipalities, he had an opportunity to comment on the weather.

“To you Ms. Bradley, and each one of your employees, a very warm welcome to the Sunshine City, and look at that, the sun just came through the clouds,” said Mayor Steve Clarke. Clarke mentioned other significant investments like the opening of Georgian College, Lakehead University and the OPP General Headquarters which served to transform the economy and employment picture of Orillia as manufacturing was fading from the picture.

“This project, many of us believe, has the ability to be just as transformative. So, this is a day to celebrate,” said Clarke.  

The City started negotiating with Hydro One in June 2015. A decision regarding the sale of Orillia Power Corporation’s distribution business will come some time after a technical conference on the application scheduled for October 3.

Clarke told the audience it was a long process to get a deal to submit to the OEB.

“I remember a weekend in August of 2016 when negotiations broke down on a Friday night. On Sunday, I think, Gayle, our CAO, reached out to Hydro One and said, can we come down and have a chat with your CEO and senior staff tomorrow morning,” He said. “We bridge what really was the final gap and went through a negotiated deal pending the approval of council.”

Bradley commented in her remarks on the pending decision.

“We’re hopeful the Ontario Energy Board approves that transaction later this year, and we look forward to welcoming Orillia Power and their customers to the Hydro One family. Once that transaction is completed, we look forward to announcing future investment in the community,” she said.

OPC board member Bob Ripley, chair Greg Gee, CEO Grant Hipgrave

On that note, Greg Gee, chair of the OPC board, is confident and hopeful a favourable decision is reached, but, as learned previously when the OEB rejected the original application, there are no guarantees.

“It’s so hard to say. As you know it’s been going on since 2015,” he told SUNonline/Orillia. “A number of us have had some kind of experience in these types of applications and thought we knew the way forward, and why things were taking so long. I don’t think you’ll find anybody who has worked on this file who is willing to predict; we just find it very curios we are where we are several years later. But we also feel very positive now.  We feel that every stone that can be overturned has been overturned, there’s nothing left for anyone to question.”

Gee was pleased of Hydro One’s decision to move ahead with part of the deal now.

“This was the big fish we were all interested in at the board, to get this level of economic benefit as part of the deal if we were going to sell Orillia Power. For someone to just come along and just offer us cash to buy Orillia Power, there was no interest in that deal at all, there never was. In fact, that had been done several years earlier and there was no interest. The only way there was any interest was how could they sweeten the pot. When we learned what an opportunity this was we got very interested.”

Bradley said the sale and today’s announcement are separate things from Hydro One’s perspective.

Hydro One acting chief operating officer Darlene Bradley

“We’ve always maintained this isn’t related to the acquisition deal and we still stand by that,” She told SUNonline/Orillia.

“We’ve been assessing the need for this control center for a number of years and we need to start construction and we want to get it built and start locating staff and control the grid from the Orillia location.”

There were other communities in the early going mentioned as potential hosts for Hydro One’s facilities. A factor beside those in her remarks was having a talent pool. A large portion of their staff will be transferred to Orillia, but that won’t last forever.

“When you have high skill jobs moving to an area we do look at what are the training facilities in the area that can ensure we can resource a facility like this,” she told SUNonline/Orillia referring to Georgian College and Lakehead University.

Orillia Chamber of commerce president, Dean Beers, was very happy about the news.

“We’re excited at the chamber to be promoting any type of economic development and growth in the City – this is great,” he said.

Former Mayor Angelo Orsi was present for the announcement. As a developer, he owns commercial and residential lands which surround the University Avenue site Hydro One will occupy.

“The game changer for this deal to happen was the systems operation center, that’s really the game changer that makes this whole deal palatable for the whole community,” he said.

CDC general manager Wendy Timpano

This is not just about the jobs Hydro One will bring directly. There will be other new business created and the Community Development Corporation has been an important part of helping many Orillia businesses get established.

“When you talk about 150 or 200 high paying, quality jobs for the community, that’s a big deal for us; not to mention the investment in the community, there’s spinoff jobs available for the construction industry, so many great things. I think it’s great for Orillia,” said the CDC’s general manager, Wendy Timpano.

(Photos By Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia, Images Hydro One and Independent Electricity System Operator  )


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