Anthony Haines looks toward the imminent arrival of the electric car with enthusiasm and apprehension.

Why? As chief executive of Toronto Hydro he has to run the wires that, in a few years, will charge up the batteries of thousands of cars across the city.

And he knows he currently can’t do it.

“If you connect about 10 per cent of the homes on any given street with an electric car, the electricity system fails,” Haines told an audience at Ryerson University yesterday. “It basically can’t handle that load.”

What to do? That’s part of the reason why Toronto Hydro, Hydro One and the Ontario Power Authority have pledged a total of $7 million over the next five years to kick-start Ryerson’s new Centre for Urban Energy.

Cities suck up most of the energy consumed in Canada, but they don’t produce much.

The centre will look at that conundrum, examining how urban areas can produce more energy, more cleanly; how they can use less energy; and how they can store and distribute it differently.

Plugging in a car battery to charge it draws about triple the amount of power used by a typical home during the daytime, he said.

Compounding the problem, most people will want to plug in their cars after work in the early evening, which is just when household demand for power hits its peak.

“You connect this huge load on the grid and the grid simply won’t handle that type of load,” said Haines. “We need some innovative solutions.”

Ryerson’s Ravi Seethapathy, who pushed for the creation of the centre, said Toronto is a good example of another urban problem: Most of its power is generated many miles from where it’s used, and there are choke-points in the wires bringing power into the city.

“Ideally, renewable energy should be put in the city,” he said, but most of it is being generated in “moose pasture” and still has to be carried long distances to market.

And even if more power is generated within the city, he said, the system isn’t currently wired to handle it.

The centre won’t look only at electricity. Seethapathy said there’s no reason why more appliances, including air conditioners, couldn’t run on natural gas.

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