It has been almost a year since I wrote in this newspaper that I had lost faith in our power system.
It was February 2013 and Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro was warning us that because of problems with the Holyrood plant, conservation requests and even rotating blackouts were possible. We were fortunate to get through last winter, but none of that makes up for what we’ve faced for the past seven days.
Hydro brass and government can talk all they want about the perfect storm of unplanned events, from a cold snap to high winds to equipment repairs to a transformer fire. As others have said, this is Newfoundland, not Disneyland.
We can’t continually blame a compound series of happenings for the grief unloaded on tens of thousands of our citizens. Didn’t we hear the same story last January when, in the middle of a storm, Hydro lost a piece of equipment at Holyrood? I’m sick to death of the standard talk about aging assets. So are we, and most of us aged considerably last weekend.
Heads should roll over this one. Again, a year ago, I wrote: “I hope someone from the government is pressing Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro and Newfoundland Power to go above and beyond to ensure we have a reliable supply of electricity. People have a right to be mad as hell. The status quo isn’t good enough.”
I also suggested then that while we only pay for the power we use, for customers who suffer through extended outages, perhaps it’s time the Public Utilities Board considered rebates for services promised but never delivered.
To government: get your act together. I appreciated cabinet minister Steve Kent’s suggestion that municipalities open warming facilities, but that was the extent of the provincial government’s direction. Who was deciding if schools be closed and what businesses should be open? Who was in charge?
I couldn’t care less that the premier missed a golden opportunity to boost her own popularity and take a more in-your-face leadership role, but I had no confidence that any one person was in control. I give accolades to the front-line crews, the power companies for their briefings, and the media for publicizing them, but as things worsened from hours to days, we needed decision-making.
When people are evacuated from seniors’ homes, when power is being rationed, when there are massive lineups for gasoline, and necessities are flying off supermarket shelves, someone has to take control.
We should not have had to ask businesses to turn off non-essential lights and signs. They should have been ordered to do so. Trust me, after a dozen hours in the cold, I was a breath away from banging on one door in my neighbourhood to tell them to turn off their Christmas lights.
Those of us fortunate to get power, even for a while, wondered if it was a rolling blackout or as someone put it, the other kind. Someone Tweeted, “Here in St. John’s, the catch phrase ‘got milk?’ has been replaced with ‘got ’lectricity?” Someone else called it “a light version of “Hunger Games.” We sit around like robots waiting; hoping they don’t cut our power next.”
I am still shocked that so many of us are unprepared for what has become the inevitable. No, I still haven’t bought a generator, but I had the other things needed to get me through.
I am even more concerned that those at the top of our energy companies give little indication they are better prepared. One Hydro official said, “We don’t build the system to meet extreme circumstances, because it becomes very costly. So what we do is we plan our generation to meet what we’d call a normal cold winter day, and what we’d normally experience.”
Well that works well, doesn’t it?
We need a plan. And when something breaks, someone has to take control. It didn’t happen in this case.
John Foster Dulles, the U.S. Secretary of State under former president Dwight Eisenhower, said, “The measure of success isn’t whether you have a tough problem, but whether it’s the same problem you had last year.”
Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.