What a weekend it’s been — and while Premier Kathy Dunderdale may not feel this province has been facing a crisis, there are probably a fair number of residents who feel differently.
First, rolling electrical blackouts. Thursday and Friday, it was the hopscotch of feeder lines being taken down, with people left in the cold without power because a variety of Nalcor Energy assets were out of service for maintenance when they were needed most, as desperately cold temperatures swept across the island.
Saturday, it was the early morning transformer fire at the Sunnyside substation, a single incident at a single Nalcor facility that still managed to knock out power to 190,000 customers right across the island, 25,000 to 35,000 of whom were still without power on Sunday, and some of whom will be without power until as late as Tuesday.
“When you have infrastructure that’s 40 years old, you’re going to have challenges,” Dunderdale said Sunday. “Combine those challenges with difficult weather conditions that we’ve certainly had in the last few days, high demand, very high demand, higher than we’ve seen in the last five years, then events like this are going to occur,” she said. “There is a solution coming.”
That solution, apparently, is thousands of kilometres of electrical cable and a new hydroelectric power facility at Muskrat Falls. With all due respect to the efficacy of that solution, it is a long way off, and the message seems to be that until then, we’ll have to take our chances. It also begs a far more significant question: if the infrastructure is 40 years old (and the truth is that there is a significant portion that is even older than that, with some pieces dating back to the ’60s and still others so old that their manufacturers have gone out of business), why hasn’t there been a more significant effort to replace and maintain the province’s aging transmission and generation facilities?
Consider this: in August 2012, Newfoundland Hydro had this to say about crucial pieces of emergency generating equipment, gas plants at Hardwoods and Stephenville, in its own capital costs document: “Hydro’s gas turbine plants at Stephenville, Hardwoods and Holyrood are more than 30 years old. The generally accepted life expectancy for gas turbine plants is between 25 and 30 years. A complicating factor in Hydro’s case is that the manufacturer of the power turbines, one of the key components at the Stephenville and Hardwoods plants, is no longer in business, eliminating the availability of factory technical support and spare parts. Also, the manufacturer of the gas generators (jet engines) at the Stephenville and Hardwoods plants has declared them obsolete and the supply of spare parts, technical support and repair facilities continues to diminish.”
That’s correct: serious problems were clearly identified in 2012. The age and bottleneck of the Sunnyside substation is also hardly news to the utility. Both Stephenville and Hardwoods were out of service when power was needed on Thursday, as was one generator at Holyrood. Problems at Holyrood are continuing.
What is more than a little alarming than the idea that this is now to be expected is the suggestion that, at the drop of a hat, this may have become the new normal for this province. Think about this: last Tuesday, we had an electrical system we could apparently count on. By Sunday, its failure was the kind of “challenge” that the premier of the province says is likely to occur.
That is a very difficult pill to swallow. And people in the province might rightly want to know how it’s been allowed to happen.