It’s dead winter in Canada and another province has lost its electricity supply. This time it’s Newfoundland and Labrador. Most of the half million residents of the island part of the province lost their power in the morning of Saturday, January 4. That meant no heat, no cooking and no comfort.
Efforts to restore power have stumbled badly. The main power station for the east of the province, the oil-fired, nearly 40 years old Holyrood, was the source of the original island-wide blackout. It was gradually brought back into service by the following day but then broke down again on Sunday night. Tens of thousands will be in the dark for several more days while rolling blackouts will be the norm for weeks.
The capital city St. John’s is the hardest hit area. As of Monday morning, 30,000 households were in the dark. Schools across the island are closed for at least Monday and Tuesday. Freezing rain is forecast for Monday evening and Tuesday morning.
The outages were caused by a combination of a big snow storm that dumped some 40 cm of snow and aging generating stations that are breaking down. Conditions were worsened, and made much more dangerous, by bitterly cold temperatures–in the minus 20-Celsius range plus wind chill factors in some parts of the island.
A major transformer station that brings power into St. John’s caught fire as it became overloaded with extra electricity demand due to the low temperatures. That caused a shutdown at Holyrood. It supplies some 40 per cent of electricity to the province. (See here a map of the energy supply system in Newfoundland and Labrador.) With no transmission link to the distant Canadian mainland, the island doesn’t have the option of purchasing electricity from other jurisdictions.
It’s the third province in two weeks in which a large part of the population lost power. An ice storm on Dec 20-22 knocked out power to some one million people in the Toronto region in Ontario, several tens of thousands in southern Quebec, and more than 100,000 in New Brunswick. The same storm caused more than half a million people in Michigan and app. 130,000 in Maine to lose power. Tens of thousands in both countries went without electricity for many days.
The outage in Newfoundland was preceded by rolling blackouts in the days preceding. That was due to exceptional demand and the fact that one of the generators at Holyrood was operating at less than capacity while two smaller, aging natural gas-fired stations were off line altogether. Holyrood’s two backup generators were in the midst of annual maintenance overhaul.
The December Ice Storm occurred at temperatures fluctuating around the freezing mark. But temperatures fell sharply after the precipitation stopped. Recurring snow complicated matters in Maine and New Brunswick. All three factors hit Newfoundland-big snow, temperatures in the minus double digits, plus wind chill.
The circumstances and geography of the two storm events are separated by time and location. But there are commonalities that warrant concern:
1. It’s winter and it’s cold. Any loss of electricity in Canada can become life threatening if a bad confluence of circumstances occurs. Home and workplace heating in Canada is typically produced either directly by electricity (90 percent of homes in Newfoundland) or by fossil fuel furnaces that are nonetheless dependent on electricity-fired fans and pumps. Another risk is loss of water service when lines freeze or municipal systems lose pressure. Montreal’s water supply dwindled dangerously during the ice storm of January 1998 because the pumps that supplied pressure had lost their power.
2. Toronto’s and Newfoundland’s wintertime electricity outages were apparently not crisis situations. At least, that’s what the disgraced Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto said at the height of the outages there and what Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale declared on Jan. 4. How cold must the temperature become, and how many people must lose power, before an “event” becomes a “crisis”? Perhaps when people start dying in enough numbers? But isn’t that, then, too late?
3. Canada’s electricity generation and supply network is founded on the principle that ‘more is better’. That’s the capitalist ethic before which all else bows. More consumption and of goods and services and more waste in the process is good for business. Hence, the business cycle eschews such cautionary principles as ‘enough is enough’, still more ‘less is better’. There’s an ever-growing need for more electricity in order to power society’s excess and waste. Capitalists cannot break that vicious cycle because they would put themselves out of business if they tried.
4. Another capitalist feature is capital-intensive and highly centralized electricity supply systems. These typically deliver power over long distances and are vulnerable to all sorts of stresses and breakdowns, including aging, weather events and on and on. These are not user or environment-friendly systems, but they make lots of money for those who build and service them.
5. Individualized delivery of energy is another regressive feature. Rather than create, for example, efficient central supply systems to provide heat, hot water and air conditioning for homes and workplaces from local and renewable sources, it is more profitable to have hyper-individualized supply delivery. All those individual power lines going into all those homes and offices, all subject to weather storms and their accompanying high winds, freezing rain or falling trees. It’s the same capitalist principle that keeps automobiles as the primary source of transportation in cities. Terribly wasteful and anti-social, but all very good for business.
6. Completing this crazy mix are conflicting pressures to keep the cost of producing electricity as low as possible. Capitalists who aren’t lucky enough to produce their own sources of electricity cheaply will want it from a utility at the cheapest price possible. Rob Henderson, vice-president of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, put to CBC on Jan. 4 what people relying on electricity for basic needs can expect from such a setup. “We don’t build the system to meet extreme circumstances, because it becomes very costly,” he said. “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.” But what is “normal” now in this climate changing world?
Officials in Newfoundland are urging electricity consumers to cut back their use in the coming weeks so the grid can be stabilized. Premier Dunderdale told a press conference, “Everybody has a role to play in this”. But feelings were strained when a professional AHL hockey game went ahead as planned Sunday in the Mile One arena in St. John’s and shopping malls dutifully opened for business.
The Newfoundland and Labrador government says electricity salvation is just around the corner for the province. It expects that power from phase one of the proposed Lower Churchill River Project (Muskrat Falls and Gull Island dams) in Labrador (the mainland portion of the province, population 50,000) will be available by 2017. The two dams will flood more land along the Churchill River despite opposition by many of the Aboriginal people who have lived there for centuries. The electricity generated will be delivered to Newfoundland’s sparsely-populated west coast by undersea cable. From there, it will be sold across the province or in Maritime Canada and the eastern United States. The power will leave the province via another undersea cable, this one under the Gulf of St. Lawrence. That part of the project will cost $1.2 billion.*
The first stage of this mega-project at Muskrat Falls is projected to cost more than $7 billion and would replace Holyrood. The distance form Muskrat Falls to St. John’s is 1,400 kilometers.
An editorial in the St. John’s Telegram noted wryly, “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?”
The editorial is titled, ‘Crisis: What crisis?’
Responding to Premier Dunderdale’s statement that the province must expect more “challenges” in its energy supply, the editorial went on, “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.”
According to a 2011 report by the Canadian Electrical Association, the people running Canada have been depriving the country’s electricity supply network of the necessary investment to keep it reliable and able to meet ever-rising demand.
So it goes in the crazy world of creating energy need and then supplying it.
* It would be a lot simpler if Lower Churchill electricity destined for out-of-province markets could be transported overland across neighbouring Quebec. But a long-standing dispute between the capitalists in the two provinces over sharing the spoils of the Upper Churchill River Project that opened in 1974 (popularly known as Churchill Falls) has the two at loggerheads. Only one export transmission route for the electricity was available at the time–across Quebec–and the project lacked sufficient capital. So the Newfoundland government negotiated a long term deal with Hydro Québec to obtain a portion of the needed financing and to sell most of the electricity that would be generated. It was a very bad deal for Newfoundland. Its terms last until 2041 and Quebec refuses, quite unfairly, to negotiate significant increases in the very low price it pays for the electricity. All this is not to speak of the fact that the project was built with zero consultation with the affected Innu Aboriginal peoples.