Cities and power: revisiting Adam Smith’s division of labour

The video below is from the GOES-13 weather satellite. It shows Hurricane Sandy’s progress in the days before the storm collided with the U.S. east coast. It’s like a slow-motion nightmare.

At around 1:50 in the video, you can see the northwest edge of the storm start to sweep across Lake Ontario. That was Sunday, October 28. As people in Toronto know, it started getting extremely windy at around that time. Toronto has over 15,000 kilometres of overhead power wires, so it’s no surprise, given the strength of the winds, that many were knocked down by trees and branches knocked down by wind. This caused numerous local blackouts across the city.

The face of modern affluent society, in cold weather without electricity: survivors of Hurricane Sandy at New Dorp Beach on Staten Island, making do with the only energy source available. This photo was taken on November 7, 2012, nine days after Sandy struck the U.S. east coast. Click to enlarge. Photo courtesy of ABC News.

The blackouts were short lived, which is a good thing considering the outdoor temperature in Toronto has been trending downward since September. Those who have experienced a prolonged blackout, or who are experiencing one now, know it it is traumatic and frightening.

During the Great Ice Storm of 1998, there was no power at the federal office in Quebec where I worked as a consultant, so I was idled. My hometown of Ottawa was largely spared power outages, but in the city of Montreal, and in hundreds of rural communities across eastern Ontario, west Quebec, and the U.S. northeast it was a different story.

With our workplace idled for lack of electricity, I and my friend and colleague Pat Liston worked as Red Cross Volunteers, delivering supplies and personnel to far-flung communities across eastern Ontario. It was a sobering experience. Driving to and from deliveries, we passed endless convoys of army trucks. Every Tim Hortons doughnut shop was packed with military personnel, warming up before going back outside to help replace utility poles.

Some places were just devastated. Blackout refugees were crowded into community centres. They tried to put a brave face onto their grim situation, but we could see exhaustion and the relentless cold—the Ice Storm was immediately followed by a sudden deep-freeze, with temperatures plunging into the minus teens (below 10 °F)—taking their toll. Pat and I felt lucky to be able to return to our homes in fully-powered Ottawa every evening.

Ice-ravaged electricity transmission towers. This is why hundreds of cities, towns, and communities in the northeastern U.S. and central Canada went without power during a cold snap in early 1998.

I shudder when I think of how it would have been if I had had no power. I lived, then as now, in a high-rise fed by underground wires. My building did not experience even a second without electricity during the entire Ice Storm and its aftermath. But if it had… well, I would have been a refugee like literally thousands of others.

A Montreal street during the Ice Storm. Cities need electricity, or they can’t function.

Most people do not realize how utterly dependent cities are on electricity. Cities are probably the best real-world, real-time illustration of Adam Smith’s famous principle of Division of Labour, which he presented in his treatise The Wealth of Nations. In that seminal work, Smith says this:

Were we to examine all the different parts of [a working man’s] dress and household furniture… and consider what a variety of labour is employed about each of them, we shall be sensible that, without the assistance and cooperation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to what we very falsely imagine the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated.

Built-up modern cities like Toronto literally could not function without electricity. Toronto used close to 25 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2011, according to the city’s electric utility. The only electricity generating plant in the city, the Portlands facility, produced around 1.1 billion kWh in that year. That works out to about 4.5 percent of Toronto’s total demand.

That means the other 95.5 percent of Toronto’s 2011 power requirement—23.6 billion kWh—was met from outside of Toronto. That is to say, “the assistance and cooperation of many thousands” outside Toronto is what made Toronto go during 2011. In this case, the many thousands consisted of generator plant workers, lines people, and grid operators. These many thousands were organized into well-functioning operational units and supported by modern administrative organizations, and designed, funded, and led by modern management organizations. Most of this workforce, and almost all the equipment, is physically outside of Toronto. These many thousands ensure on-demand power 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Without them, Toronto would come to a halt.

Rescued: after a blackout, the front line of the electricity workforce is the line workers who restore power. They are heroes, in the same category as police, paramedics, firefighters, and mountain rescuers.

This division of labour, whereby most citizens of and workers in Toronto do not produce or distribute the electricity that runs Toronto, also is why electricity is cheap. The central-station grid model is by far the most efficient way to deliver bulk electricity to millions of consumers.

And the most efficient central station grid is one that is fed with cheap, highly concentrated generation sources, that occupy small physical footprints.

Ontario’s nuclear plants, which make by far most of the electricity that runs Toronto subways, streetcars, hospitals, schools, high-rise elevators, and movie theatres are in three tiny locations: Darlington east of Oshawa, Pickering west of Oshawa, and Bruce near Kincardine on Lake Huron. Amazing that these tiny places make Toronto run.

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7 years ago

THIS, this quote by Smith you give here, is what people MUST consider when they talk about a simple low-tech life! It gives in a nutshell why it isn’t possible, even if he talks about labour division, not the interwovenness of our technologies.

James Greenidge
7 years ago

Re: “Ontario’s nuclear plants, which make by far most of the electricity that runs Toronto subways, streetcars, hospitals, schools, high-rise elevators, and movie theaters are in three tiny locations… Amazing that these tiny places make Toronto run.”

Very sobering and informative article! My main question is, how much of Toronto (or Montreal, etc for that matter) even know this to better appreciate the reliable contribution nuclear plants brings them while the FUDites run amok unchallenged maligning this awareness?

James Greenidge
Queens NY