Low number of outages during 2020 blizzard thanks to infrastructure upgrades, says power watchdog

The massive blizzard dubbed Snowmageddon brought hurricane-force winds and over 90 centimetres of snow to parts of eastern Newfoundland on Jan.17.

But despite the huge amounts of snow and strong winds, many people retained their power — unlike the storm in January 2014 that resulted in DarkNL, leaving roughly 200,000 customers across the province without electricity, some for several consecutive days.

Ron Penney, a lawyer and former public servant who helped found the Muskrat Falls Concerned Citizens Coalition, says the fewer power outages during the most recent storm were a result of upgrades to power transmission lines since 2014 and the Holyrood generating station's ability to stay online.

"I think one of the things we have to be careful about is because our main transmission lines held up [this time] that it's always going to be the case, because the big issue we're facing now, with respect to Muskrat Falls, is the question of reliability," Penney told CBC Radio's On The Go

"There's a number of vulnerabilities in Muskrat Falls, and the transmission lines are over 1,000 kilometres away from the northeast Avalon, which is a major consumer of electricity in the province."  

Roughly 27,000 customers lost power during the 2020 blizzard. That's about 10 per cent of the total of those affected by the storm, according to Ed Hollett and his blog The Bond Papers, adding that many of those were restored within 48 hours of losing power.

Penney credits Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, a subsidiary of Nalcor Energy, for being able to right its wrongs after DarkNL by bringing in CEO Stan Marshall, who has a background in electrical engineering with Newfoundland Power and Fortis, to see the upgrades through.

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"He brought the utility perspective to Hydro which had been missing for years," Penney said.

"We know from DarkNL and the Public Utilities Board review that, basically, Holyrood wasn't properly maintained for years."

Holyrood forever 

A critical Public Utilities Board review of the crown corporation after DarkNL found that the Holyrood generating station had gone long periods without proper maintenance — a key piece to keeping power online during the 2020 blizzard, according to Penney.

"The plans are, and one of selling points of this project is, that we're going to be able to decommission Holyrood, and I think it's become very clear that we can't do that," Penney said of Muskrat Falls.

"We're going to need to have something at Holyrood. Either Holyrood will have to be refurbished or replaced with gas turbines."

Penney said the PUB is currently reviewing the reliability of Muskrat Falls, and in conjunction with Liberty Consulting, the board believes that if there was a break in the link between the Avalon Peninsula and Muskrat Falls, the area could be without power for months.

In addition, he said, the Maritime Link with Nova Scotia will only offer 300 megawatts of energy, rather than the 500 megawatts provided by Holyrood.

"The real question is whether or not they can even supply us that 300 megawatts, and if they can, there's still not enough. So we'd be facing big problems in terms of reliability and rolling blackouts," he said.

"If the fall happens on the isthmus of the Avalon then we're done for ... if we decommission Holyrood — there's a few small light and power plants — we'd basically have no power." 

Penney said that he believes the PUB will recommend keeping Holyrood on stand-by at the least, once it completes its current review on reliability.  

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