We didn’t have to be left in the dark

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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I’ve been lucky: for me, the rotating blackouts and occasional complete power failures have been an inconvenience. I mean, I’m working out
of my basement because the newspaper where I work has suffered
a loss of electricity, but there are plenty of others who have had it far worse.

I have friends with houses with frozen pipes, others who have had multiple rolling blackouts and can’t keep their homes warm – still others who watched rolling blackouts end in their neighbourhoods but saw their own homes stay black.

I’ve had the chance to sit with neighbours making tea in a pot using a blowtorch to boil the water, got to talk about past power failures with other neighbours and how much snow there is. I haven’t had to work in the pitch black like some grocery store employees, emptying coolers and trying their best to keep from losing thousands of dollars’ worth of perishable goods.

So, all in all, I’m in a far better situation than some others.

But I went to sleep last night thinking I’d probably wake up with the power off, and that something I’m used to taking for granted is now unsettlingly fickle. There may be power — there may not. And it looks like that might stretch out into the future — and that, actually, makes me angry.

It is more than a little discouraging to hear Premier Kathy Dunderdale say that we can expect such failures during extreme situations, especially when parts of our electrical grid are “over 40 years old.”

Why? Because plenty of our electrical assets are older than that — and even if they were just 40 years old, think about this.

They would have been 31 years old when Premier Dunderdale’s party took office, meaning the systems were already pretty much at the end of their expected lifetimes.

They would have been 32, 33, 34 and 35 during a period of time when this province ran up sometimes-massive surpluses that could have been used to deal with things like infrastructure replacement.

They would have been 36 and 37 when Dunderdale was minister of natural resources, responsible for overseeing Nalcor, once again while oil profits rolled in.

They would have been 38, 39 and 40 while she was premier.

Aging for years

Newfoundland Hydro has been pointing out how these assets have been aging for years now. The information has been there; the political will to solve the nuts-and-bolts problems has not.

We got buy-ins into the oil play and plans for megaprojects and promises that we would become an energy warehouse. An energy warehouse? The way it looks right now, we can’t even operate an energy strip-mall.

The government didn’t deal with the problems it knew about — and now, we’re being told that the panacea is a project that, frankly, is going to make massively expensive power and ship it great distances over mountains with extreme icing — a line where the repair time could be a month or more, not days.

And if you really want a scary thought, you can consider the fact that the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board was told during hearings that the repair time for a deep-water issue with the Maritime Link was eight months — but that the proponents expected that any problems (the probability they are predicting is something like once every 14.5 years) would take place in shallow water and only need weeks to repair, if they can actually contract the vessels needed to do the work.

All of that, though, is well into our futures. Years, in fact. Right now, we have to deal with the mess we have.

The point is that this is all costing more than just lost power sales: an emergency shutdown at the Come By Chance oil refinery following a Newfoundland Hydro problem last February cost the refinery millions of dollars. Chances are the latest power failures will cost just as much. There’s the damage to people’s homes and businesses, lost productivity, lost confidence for businesses that might want to operate here.

You can call it a challenge if you like. Perhaps there are better, less printable words.

Organizations: Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, Maritime Link

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Comments

Comments

Recent comments

  • Winston Adams
    January 07, 2014 - 17:43

    Russell, don't forget : 1. You personally said it was too late to cancel muskrat falls. Thinks of the money spent in recent months that could have given greater reliability to our existing assets. 2. You have never written a critical piece to advocate the need to flatten our winter peak demand. 3. You have been silent on the pitiful "Conservation Plan" put forward by the power companies. 4 you have been silent on the fact that our government policy is that we NOT have in place a Demand Management System. Now we have one, its called "Rotating Blackouts" 5. you have been silent on our lack of a robust energy Efficiency Plan, as many other jurisdictions are doing, which substancially reduces the impact of such outages. 6. Hindsight is 20/20...... this situation had a high degree of predictability. 7 Are programmable thermostats still a good idea, in this type of situation, taking load off for a few hours, and doubling the load when it automatically comes back on at the peak load time of early morning. See if that stupid TV ad suddenly gets dropped? 8. I appreciate most all your writing.... but hope this gives you some food for thought. 9 . 96 percent of nfld power customers are pleased with their service. But they are partners with Nfld Hydro in their pitiful Conservation Plan.... and I bet not one percent of the customers have a clue what a real conservation plan should be. Why don't you educate the public with some editorials on this subject. 10. Aged infrastructure is little of the problem. Good maintenance and proper planning can often offset the age factor. Aged assets is more of an excuse in this situation.

  • Dood
    January 07, 2014 - 17:37

    Now that there has been a death a public inquiry needs to be called.

  • Fred Penner
    January 07, 2014 - 11:00

    Just a quick thought....generators, transformers, etc...these things all cost money - a lot of money. NL Hydro is mandated (and enforced by the PUB) to provide power in a cost effective manner. We could have a power system with enough generation and redundancy so that it would never fail BUT it would cost ALOT of money. In reality, everything in life is done on a budget - the power system is no different.

    • Maurice E. Adams
      January 07, 2014 - 11:17

      And there is no better example of that than Muskrat Falls (except there is virtually no redundancy, we do not need the power, Nova Scotia is getting the power, we still need Holyrood or similar thermal backup, Quebec's rights may quash any power potential from Muskrat ------ but we still pay (as you say "ALOT of money").

  • Danny Chavez
    January 07, 2014 - 10:50

    Excellent Commentary you are not getting from the Newfoundland Media Party - don't let the Media Party tell you what to think: The Great Blizzard/Blackout by Ed Hollett http://bondpapers.blogspot.ca/ ARE YOU IN THE DARK OVER NALCOR'S BLACKOUTS? STOP BEING BAMBOOZLED BY BULLSHIT! by Uncle Gnarley http://unclegnarley.blogspot.ca/

  • Maurice E. Adams
    January 07, 2014 - 10:28

    Nalcor has said repeatedly that our recent peak demand was 35% higher than our 5-year average. To see how that statement compares with Nalcor's actual peak demand numbers from 2002 to 2013, go to www.vision2041.com

  • Sean Williams
    January 07, 2014 - 09:54

    "There's no need to loose confidence in the system" Right, it's just 40 years old and shuts down when you really need it... can someone define confidence please?

  • no water no power
    January 07, 2014 - 09:50

    My water pipes ruptured Saturday morning, about 5 hours after the loss of power at 9:05. The plumber worked for two full days to install new plastic pipes and rip out the copper ones. My basement carpet is ruined. I've been sleeping at the home of friends. And I won't be able to afford gas or groceries this month because this unexpected bill ate up my savings. Premier Dumberdale won't help me with these costs. She says our electric generation problems are no different than the ice storm experienced on the mainland a few weeks ago. I HAVE NEWS FOR HER: the ice storm caused a DISTRIBUTION problem - not a GENERATION problem. Every time this woman opens her mouth she enrages thousands of people. Instead of coming out of hiding after 4 days, Dumberdale should have remained out of sight and earshot. I live on a small disability pension and should not have to pay for HER mistakes. How can Danny Williams proceed to build a town the size of Gander on the Avalon when we cannot supply electricity to existing new housing and commercial developments? Yet our wind and tidal power remains unharnessed. Spend $8 billion on that, not Muskrat Falls! The incompetence of this government makes me sick - literally.

  • no water no power
    January 07, 2014 - 09:49

    My water pipes ruptured Saturday morning, about 5 hours after the loss of power at 9:05. The plumber worked for two full days to install new plastic pipes and rip out the copper ones. My basement carpet is ruined. I've been sleeping at the home of friends. And I won't be able to afford gas or groceries this month because this unexpected bill ate up my savings. Premier Dumberdale won't help me with these costs. She says our electric generation problems are no different than the ice storm experienced on the mainland a few weeks ago. I HAVE NEWS FOR HER: the ice storm caused a DISTRIBUTION problem - not a GENERATION problem. Every time this woman opens her mouth she enrages thousands of people. Instead of coming out of hiding after 4 days, Dumberdale should have remained out of sight and earshot. I live on a small disability pension and should not have to pay for HER mistakes. How can Danny Williams proceed to build a town the size of Gander on the Avalon when we cannot supply electricity to existing new housing and commercial developments? Yet our wind and tidal power remains unharnessed. Spend $8 billion on that, not Muskrat Falls! The incompetence of this government makes me sick - literally.

  • joesawyer
    January 07, 2014 - 09:18

    EXCELLENT article! - the best overview of this debacle yet - thank-you.

  • Natasha young
    January 07, 2014 - 07:12

    I have no faith in this government with respect to our power issues. We need to look after ourselves and our homes and be less dependent on our power lines. Makes living off grid much more appealing. Wood stoves, solar panels and generators should be considered to everyone building / renovating homes.

  • Ed Power
    January 07, 2014 - 06:47

    "Ain't got no power, ain't got no light. It's black as pitch, cold as ice. Premier says, 'Don't worry. Be happy!' " With apologies to Bob Marley....

  • FINTIP
    January 06, 2014 - 23:18

    The first sign of spin after Sunnyside went down was NALCOR's statement that it was caused by weather. We now know that wasn't so but that hast stopped its apologists from continuing to lay the blame on Mother Nature. It wasn't the wind, the snow or the cold but gross negligence that caused our 'assets' to fail. Wangersky points to the length of time Dunderdale and her party have overseen the deterioration of those assets. He omits that for nearly a decade Ed Martin has been responsible for setting the agenda at NALCOR. According to Martin, safety and reliability are the utility's highest priorities. Neither was in evidence this past week. NALCOR might have a reputation for worker safety, but its abysmal failure at reliability has placed the rest of us at risk. For good or bad our dependence on electricity is complete. Take it away - especially in the dead of winter - and the consequences can be devastating. There is no knowing or calculating the full extent of those consequences but we can guess they are far more reaching and serious than the premier is prepared to admit.

  • Frustrated resident
    January 06, 2014 - 22:33

    Very well said. The only thing worse than what the Blunderdale gov't is doing is the Liberals coming out and complaining. The equipment should have been replaced before the PC gov't took power. But instead of pointing fingers now, let's just get it fixed.

    • Joe
      January 07, 2014 - 07:39

      A listener on CBC had the answer. We can replace our aging assets in October 2015.