Politics, privilege and private interests at play as outage investigation begins
This time last week, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador were figuratively and, in many cases, literally in the dark.
All three smokestacks at the Holyrood generating station were venting exhaust recently.
— Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
Problems persisted into Friday evening, with a trip at Holyrood’s Unit 2 leading to a brief, and widespread, outage.
There are preliminary details and timelines now available to answer some of the questions of how and why their power disappeared, leaving them trapped in elevators, caught without traffic lights, cold in their own homes, harmed by carbon monoxide and with shuttered businesses, as they sought alternate sources of heat and light.
One man was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning during the blackouts. He was found in a shed in Mount Pearl and rushed to hospital at 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, before being pronounced dead.
It is already known power demand surpassed the available supply, because Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro’s generators inside the Holyrood power plant were not operating at full capacity. Neither were smaller backup units in Stephenville and Hardwoods, in the midst of an unexpected cold snap.
The root of it all, however, has the potential to be something quite different.
A trio of investigations will take place over the coming months and are expected to present a full finding of the blackout facts.
An internal review at Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro has started; there will be an inquiry by the Public Utilities Board (PUB) and — most importantly — a provincial government-directed inquiry taking a broader look at the system tasked with assuring power is available on the island, including the energy regulator.
Along with PUB officials and Hydro leadership, Newfoundland Power president and CEO Earl Ludlow is asking people on the island to still “conserve, conserve, conserve” their electricity. Simultaneously, the powers that be are to investigate, investigate, investigate.
The investigations are for people like Will Fillier, who sat with a dead cellphone in front of him in the warmth of the Foran Room at St. John’s City Hall last Saturday night. He was thinking about the potential for frozen pipes, as a city generator helped him thaw out.
“The power has been gone since 9 (a.m.) this morning and I just couldn’t stay home. It was so cold and everything, I just had to leave and go somewhere. I heard about this spot — (St. John’s Mayor) Dennis O’Keefe mentioned this on the radio — so I thought I’d come down,” he said.
He was not calling for heads to roll, or for an inquiry. He just wanted his heat and lights to come on and stay on.
Right now, there are still no guarantees. Though the situation has improved dramatically, one of three main generators at Holyrood can produce at about 35 per cent, or just one-third, its full capacity. The unit requires a fix of a large fan attached to its end. That repair is expected to take two to three weeks to complete, if all goes well.
Meanwhile, a first-level review of the power shortage has been started by a team of Nalcor Energy senior staff — Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro is a Nalcor Energy company — and will include a look at the unavailability of generators, as well as a subsequent fire at a large transformer in Sunnyside.
The PUB has decided the next level of review will include public hearings.
Nalcor will be expected to present its findings there. Newfoundland Power will be called in.
“The board will establish the process and timelines for the inquiry and hearing in the next several days,” states a notice issued Friday by a PUB staff member.
“This process will initially focus on Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro’s ability to meet load requirements on the (island) system throughout this winter and the next several winter seasons.”
PUB commissioner and CEO Andy Wells is so far not responding to questions and has turned down requests for an interview.
He and his team have been given free rein to conduct the review as they see fit.
Still bound by restricting legislation, under the Public Utilities Act the board has subpoena powers and can, if necessary, compel witnesses and evidence to be brought forward in its public hearings.
All players involved are assuring co-operation and open access.
The next level
Beyond the PUB review is the most significant piece of followup: one looking beyond the blackouts.
“We need to let the PUB do that piece of work, the whole review of what’s gone on in the province in the last week. But as this situation has unfolded, larger questions have been asked and it’s been about the whole regulatory piece of our energy framework in the province,” said Premier Kathy Dunderdale Thursday, in announcing the higher-level review.
It will take six weeks to solidify the details, including who will undertake the project.
Essentially, it will look at upkeep on the entire system and reliability, under a regulator dealing with the addition of power-producing infrastructure to the system, outside of its reach, but affecting the pieces it does review.
Muskrat Falls spending is not reviewed by the PUB.
This includes the $7.7-billion Muskrat Falls project — a new backbone for the island’s power system.
As a whole, the province’s power system was designed to be — as per law — essentially a balance between safe, reliable operations and what the ratepayers of the province can afford. It is a limited number of people, ratepayers, injecting a limited amount of money into the works.
As part of this system, there are yearly reviews by the PUB of planned spending by the utilities on power infrastructure – assuring no unreasonable spending that might drive up power rates for the benefit of utility shareholders rather than the people paying the bills.
Both Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro and Newfoundland Power create a wish list of construction projects and purchases. The PUB, in turn, reviews the lists in detail, determining what spending it will allow. Work goes forward, or not, on the regulator’s say so.
The growing challenge for the PUB is determining what is appropriate, without access to details of the entire system.
The review will determine if they can meet that challenge.
This story has been edited from an earlier version to provide extra context.