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130 years of power in Oshawa

In 2017, the Oshawa Power and Utilities Corporation is looking back at its history after the first power switch was flipped in the city, 130 years ago, on September 12, 1887. (Photos courtesy of the OPUC)

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

While the name may have changed over the years, the purpose has not, and for that reason, the Oshawa Power and Utilities Corporation is celebrating the 130 year mark since the switch was flipped on power in the city of Oshawa.

The date was September 12, 1887, and after a group of early businessmen and entrepreneurs in E.S. Edmonson, J.L. Guy and K.L. Murton got together to form the Oshawa Electric Company, they flipped on the lights for the first time in the small city of Oshawa, bringing to life 15 light posts and power for a few nearby businesses.

“The way we look at it is, all the successor companies are part of that history,” says Ivano Labricciosa, the president and CEO of the OPUC. “Serving electricity and power to the citizens of Oshawa has been around since the 1800s.”

Originally, that power was operated in conjunction with the local flour mill, which previously sat on Lawrence Street, just south of Mill Street. For the most part, the original power was sourced from steam and augmented by a small water power plant powered by a dam in the Oshawa Creek.

At that time, power was only available during the nighttime hours between dusk and dawn, and sometimes, if the moon was bright enough, the power would be left off.

Tragedy struck in 1892 when the flour mill was destroyed in a fire. The power plant was eventually rebuilt, and then sold to the Stark Electric Co. out of Toronto. This phased in a new era for Oshawa’a lights as the arc lights were replaced with incandescent bulbs, upping Oshawa’s electric load to 600 kilowatts and serving approximately 400 customers.

It wasn’t until 1911, that power would be made available 24 hours a day, costing residents approximately 15 cents per kilowatt hour.

In 1929, the first iteration of what would eventually become the OPUC was formed when a bylaw was passed by city council to purchase the electrical system at a cost of $310,000. The council also purchased the gas distribution network at the same time for $210,000. The year after, the first Public Utilities Commission was elected from the population of 25,000 people calling Oshawa home.

And the Oshawa power company has not always been in the business of power.

In 1959, after CN Rail stopped operating the city’s bus system, it was left to the PUC to operate after council authorized the purchase of the system, along with 21 buses, for $20,000. Also, in 1970, the OPUC began offering billing services to other entities, upping their production of paper bills to about 27,000 per month, 14,000 of which were for Oshawa, and 13,000 for other utilities.

Through the OPUC’s old computer dubbed “Hilda” they offered data services to other municipalities and even operated the city’s municipal election in 1970.

For Labricciosa and his team, branching out is nothing strange to them, having invested in both a fibre optic network in Durham, and solar energy management projects in recent years. However, it was interesting for him to see that this diversification is something the OPUC has always done.

In particular, last year saw the OPUC  took over the operation and management of Regent Park Energy Inc. in downtown Toronto, which provides the heating and cooling network to the 18 buildings that make up Regent Park, Canada’s largest social housing project.

“We always had this notion that we did services for other utilities,” Labricciosa says. “It’s got a lot of touch points to today’s issues.”