Stray voltage victims see progress in OEB’s proposed changes

Posted By Jeffrey Carter

Posted 8 days ago
The people who’ve been pushing for many years to have stray voltage addressed on Ontario farms are pleased with regulatory changes proposed by the Ontario Energy Board (OEB).

These would set a stray-voltage threshold – as stringent as anywhere else in North America – for dairy animals and other livestock. They would also insist that Hydro One and other electricity distributors fix situations when the distribution system is at fault.

Lee Montgomery is a former Chatham-Kent dairy farmer who’s been struggling with the issue for more than 30 years. Together with Chatham-Kent agriculturalists Lynn Girty, Barry Frazer, Peter Hensel and others, Montgomery played a key role in having stray voltage recognized as a real phenomenon.

“Everything is finally moving in the right direction,” Montgomery says.

“I think they (the OEB) have done a tremendous job, as far as it goes — eventually it will need to go further; there’s human health involved. This thing has gone far enough that they (Ontario Hydro and other distributors) will not be able to back out of it.”

The changes are to be implemented through an amendment to the Distribution System Code under Ontario’s Energy Board Act and the Electricity Act. Interested parties have until Dec. 5 to submit a written comment. Details are available on the OEB’s website.

Lambton-Kent-Middlesex MPP Maria Van Bommel, like Montgomery, is pleased with the progress. Barring any unforeseen hitches, she says the code changes should be implemStray voltage investigations will be made by the distributor when a livestock farm customer provides the distributor with reasonable information indicating a stray-voltage problem is adversely affecting their operation. (The proposed procedure for this is to be set out in Appendix H which will be released later.)

An investigation by the distributor will be conducted when animal contact current exceeds two milliamperes or when that animal contact voltage exceeds one volt.

If the distributor’s distribution system is contributing more than one milliampere or 0.5 volts to a problem, the distributor will take the necessary steps to reduce their contribution to less than one milliampere or 0.5 volts.

The distributor will assure that the person investigating a stray voltage complaint has the necessary recognized qualifications.

Steps taken to address a stray voltage complaint by a distributor are to be made available to the public.

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The distributor will provide to OEB, upon request, details concerning stray voltage complaints and investigations.

There were 18 different written comments received by the OEB last summer from individual and groups including the Dairy Farmers of Ontario, OFA, Electrical Safety Authority, Hydro One and Electricity Distributors Association.

The Electricity Distributors’ Association wanted threshold levels being used elsewhere to be validated before being introduced in Ontario.

Hydro One argued that the regulatory changes only be applied to dairy operations since, “…it would not be economical to enforce the same voltage threshold for other livestock.”

Others argued for more stringent measures.

Back in Chatham-Kent, Fraser says he and others working with Montgomery will be following up on the wording of Appendix H.

Threat to humans

Fraser also says that the stray voltage issue concerns more than just livestock operations. If animals can be affected, so might people, and when distribution systems are overloaded energy is being wasted.

Fraser, the former agriculture representative for Kent County, says Montgomery’s was the first recognized case of stray voltage in Ontario, if not Canada. He’s been working with the Chatham-Kent farmer for more than 30 years.

Montgomery knew he had a problem in 1975 but it wasn’t until December 12, 1980 that he began to understand the source. It was Jack Rodenburg, dairy specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, who made the connection.

From there, Montgomery hired a topnotch electrician and former Ontario Hydro Employee, the late Jim Crow, to assess the extent of his problem. The source was eventually identified as electricity flowing along an underground aquifer to Montgomery’s farm from a nearby substation.

Montgomery says he was compensated in 1988 with an out-of-court settlement but the problem continued until the substation was decommissioned four years later.

He remembers the day: “I had equipment set up in my barn to do tests. The day they took it out, the problems on my farm ended.”

According to Cowan, stray voltage is probably present in most dairy farms but at a level that it doesn’t impact the animals.

Larger animals are affected by the phenomena to a greater extent because of their mass. A stray-voltage shock felt by a cow might be 170 to 200 times greater than the shock felt by a barefooted adult.

Affected cows show signs of agitation or stress, Cowan says. Typically, they’ll receive a shock when they attempt to drink in the barn, the shock being felt through their tongue or nose and exiting from the animal through their front or rear legs.

Farmers who suspect they have a problem should first contact a qualified electrician to check their own electrical system for voltage losses and to correct the flaws.ented sometime next year.

Van Bommel, working closely with Montgomery and other members of the agricultural community, introduced a private member’s bill in 2005 to address the stray voltage issue. That led to an order-in-council issued by then Energy Minister Dwight Duncan in 2007 giving the OEB a mandate to act.

Montgomery’s prize dairy herd failed due to stray voltage originating from outside his farm. He says the hydro distributor was reluctant to recognize the problem and even more reluctant to act.

According to Ted Cowan, a researcher and policy advisor with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, that reluctance may be connected to potential costs for fixing distribution flaws. The OFA has been advocating for farmers affected by stray voltage for several years.

Cowan estimates about close 10% of Ontario’s 5,500 dairy herds are negatively affected by stray voltage and the problem for perhaps 100 herds might be described as severe.

In addition, there have been reports of pigs and horses being affected.

“There is one group of customers who for years and years and years have been getting third-rate electricity but have been paying a full-rate price for it,” Cowan says.

According to the OEB, “the board believes that the incremental costs accruing to distributors from implementing the proposed Amendments will be offset by the benefits associated with enhanced assurance that distributor responses to farm stray voltage requests are efficient, consistent and effective.”

Cowan says Hydro One and other distributors will bear responsibility for only those incidences of stray voltage caused by their distribution systems.

“If you were to ask farmers when they last had a qualified electrician in to look at their system, there would be a lot of them scratching their heads. My impression is as follows: 70% to 75% of the problem originates on the farm or the property and usually can be fixed by the farmer at a moderate cost.”

Aging distribution system

Of the problems originating from outside the farm, Cowan attributes most to the aging distribution system.

In this, he has some sympathy for the electricity distributors. Had they realized 50 years ago the kind of load that would be carried today, they would likely have built to higher, load-bearing standards.

What Ontario Hydro and other distributors most fear, Cowan suggests, is a mandate forcing them to make widespread system upgrades in rural Ontario. Conceivably, that could run into billions of dollars.

As it stands, however, the problem is to be addressed on a case-by-case basis according to the OEB code amendments. Most situations that distributors will need to resolve will cost less than $10,000, Cowan suspects. A handful might cost $100,000.

Cowan suspects a small number of stray voltage cases would not be addressed by proposed OEB code amendments. These might involve things like the anti-galvanic currents flowing along pipelines and currents associated with telephone lines.

Following is the synopsis of the proposed Distribution Code amendments:

Article ID# 1313129

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