The electricity grid’s nervous system gets a brain

It’s 1978 and Pierre Trudeau is Canada’s sitting Prime Minister, Marion Dewar is the second woman to become the Mayor of Ottawa, and the Rough Riders finish first in the eastern division (spoiler: they eventually lose the Grey Cup championship).

It’s also the same year that disco becomes a bona-fide sensation (thanks to the December 1977 release of Saturday Night Fever) with clubs around the world installing reflective disco balls and multi-coloured dance floors that illuminate with flashing lights pulsating to the beat of the music. I’m throwing in a disco reference solely because it’s the smoothest way to segue, or slide, into the topic of electricity. Get it? Electric slide?  Awkward silence…let’s move on.

Behind the beaded curtains at Ottawa Hydro, 1978 is an important year for our city’s electricity system because, just like the dance floors around town, something revolutionary was happening. Some called it a superhuman computer. Some described its wall-sized circuit board as a giant and colourful Lite Brite game come to life. One thing was certain; this network of blinking lights represented the intricate nervous system of Ottawa’s electricity grid.

As the first distribution utility in Ontario to have the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition System, known as SCADA, installed, Ottawa Hydro found itself simultaneously under the experimental microscope and the envy of many other cities in Canada – even around the world. If the electricity grid was a utility’s nervous system, SCADA was its all-knowing brain.

By linking the head office super computer to the city’s transformer stations and substations, SCADA could locate service failures, automatically reclose circuits, dispatch repair crews, monitor voltage levels and warn operators of changes in unoccupied stations. Essentially, it brought two-way communications to the electricity grid for the local utility, enabling Ottawa Hydro to quickly troubleshoot problems, identify safety issues before they occurred and resolve power outages faster than ever before.

It’s hard to imagine how much longer Ottawa residents would have been without power during the January Ice Storms of 1998 and 2017 if SCADA hadn’t ushered in a new era of safety and service reliability decades ago. The benefits of the system were clear, and it wasn’t long before other utilities picked up on the trend.

Unlike disco, which found its popularity declining at the end of the seventies, SCADA endured and has become every Canadian utility’s cerebral cortex. While the Lite Brite wall went the way of the disco ball, SCADA has evolved to the digital world, much like how we download and listen to disco…I mean, music, today.

Nearly four decades since SCADA was implemented, much has changed. Justin Trudeau is Canada’s sitting Prime Minister, its Jim Watson’s second-time as Mayor of Ottawa, and the Red Blacks finished first in the eastern division in 2016 (spoiler: they win the Grey Cup championship).