Let’s hear from the powers that be

John
John Crosbie
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I didn’t have a column last week for a couple of good reasons. On Jan. 18, we attended the graduation of our only grandson in Saint John, N.B., who not only finished his chartered accounting studies, but had the highest marks of any student in Atlantic Canada this year in the examinations for that profession. We were delighted to see him receive a gold medal.

Following that trip, I was invited to speak at a celebration  in Toronto to mark the 80th birthday of former prime minister Jean Chrétien.

In my last column, I wrote about the power outage earlier this month  and whether it could happen again, and asked what plans are in place to make sure another incident is avoided.

There have been some interesting opinions expressed on that topic in the days since.

Ron Penney and David Vardy, both former high-ranking civil servants, contend that the province’s plan to commission an “independent inquiry” is an attempt to upstage the Public Utilities Board (PUB) inquiry and hearing.

Whether or not that is so, there is no doubt that an inquiry carried out by an independent agency, such as the PUB, is sufficient. How can an “independent” inquiry appointed by the government inspire confidence, since it is ultimately responsible for all of these issues in the first place?

In a letter in The Telegram

Jan. 13, Penney and Vardy raised questions that must be answered — and principally by the government.  

The recent power outages were caused primarily by generation failures during high wind conditions and low temperatures.

But Penney and Vardy point out that there will also be high risk associated with the 1,100-kilometre transmission line from Muskrat Falls to St. John’s, once it’s completed.  

This issue must be addressed in a detailed manner so that the public is properly informed. As Penney and Vardy note, we have an adverse maritime climate, and the subsea  transmission line will cross under the iceberg–scoured Strait of Bell Isle.

They also raise the question of whether the recently approved energy access agreement with Nova Scotia makes any provision for emergency power to flow from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland, if this became necessary.

This question needs to be answered: is there or is there not a firm contract between Emera and Nalcor for the provision of emergency power?

It seems sensible for the PUB to hold a completely independent inquiry that is open to the public and makes clear what the PUB’s role was leading up to the disastrous events of recent weeks.

Presumably the PUB also has explanations as to why it did not exert its powers — if it has such  authority — to ensure that the other bodies involved in providing electrical energy in this province took action to remedy inadequate generating facilities, which all involved seemed to recognize were inadequate, but decided presumably to take the risk of not acting sooner.

Several letter writers to The Telegram have made interesting comments, including Edward Sawdon of St. John’s on Jan. 14, who quoted Wikipedia, saying, “Rolling blackouts in developed countries are rare because demand is accurately forecasted, adequate infrastructure investment is scheduled and networks are well managed;” and that “such events are considered an unacceptable failure of planning and can cause significant political damage to responsible governments.”

That observation certainly needs to be addressed, as does one from John Austin of St. John’s, who wrote  asking whether the PUB is the best agency for an inquiry into the recent failings of our electrical system since it is a participant in the decision-making process and must have approved the maintenance activity that made the Hardwoods facility unavailable during recent incidents, for example.

How is the PUB to be held to account along with the other bodies involved?

Also on Jan. 14, Gordon Weil,  senior fellow in electricity policy at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, wrote to say that a new hydro resource is likely to be more reliable than the aging Holyrood plant.

But he concedes that even connecting Muskrat Falls to the Newfoundland grid will not solve the problem of over-reliance on a single large resource.

He suggests the Maritime Link with Nova Scotia and through New Brunswick and to the northwestern U.S. grid is key, as it allows power to  flow in both directions so that it could be imported in sufficient quantities to the island to cushion the loss of supply from Muskrat Falls if one should occur.  

He said we could be the biggest beneficiary of a regional approach to managing the power supply without Nalcor sacrificing any of its market plans.

He also raised issues that need to be discussed transparently before the PUB or any other party that initiates an inquiry.

Surely the provincial government has a responsibility and all the powers necessary to provide a full explanation of what led up to the crisis that erupted this month.

I look forward to continuing to read whatever information is made available on these questions of tremendous importance to everyone living in the province, since failures in the electrical system affect everyone — whether they are in a position to alleviate crises or not.

John Crosbie welcomes your feedback

by email at telegram@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Public Utilities Board, Bell Isle.They, Atlantic Institute for Market Studies

Geographic location: Muskrat Falls, Toronto, Nova Scotia Newfoundland New Brunswick U.S.

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