Weekend cold snap leaves Maritimers with burst water pipes and power outages

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's power utility is under pressure to explain why tens of thousands of customers were without power over the weekend as an arctic air system blanketed the province and brought temperatures that felt as low as -45 C.

Up to 30,000 customers were left in the dark because of a surge in demand for electricity coupled with damage to equipment caused by the extreme cold and high winds, Nova Scotia Power says.

The sudden demand for power "caused equipment to become overloaded in specific areas,” Matt Drover, a senior director with the utility, said in an email Monday.

He said "protection devices" within the province's network are designed to trigger outages "to protect the equipment from overload and further damage and to prevent larger outages."

Home electricity use spiked as temperatures across the Maritimes dropped to feel as low as -45 C with the wind chill. Between Friday and Saturday, Environment Canada issued extreme cold weather alerts for eight provinces and territories.

It wasn't only Nova Scotians who were left in the dark while temperatures plummeted. On Saturday afternoon, more than 6,000 people were without power in New Brunswick and roughly 2,300 were in the dark in Prince Edward Island.

The frigid temperatures reportedly caused water pipes to burst in many residences across the region, forcing people to vacate their homes.

Jacob Thompson, an energy co-ordinator with Nova Scotia environmental activist group Ecology Action Centre, said that while he appreciates that the cold snap was abrupt and severe, he questions why the utility’s equipment was not equipped to handle extreme weather.

“My main thought is that all of the equipment that Nova Scotia Power buys should be able to handle extreme temperatures. They know that historically this (cold weather) happens,” Thompson said in an interview Monday.

He said that while this winter has been particularly mild, it used to be common for Nova Scotia to see stretches of -20 C temperatures in the winter.

“It's not like this is Texas or California where there was a cold snap,” Thompson said. “They actually pick the equipment for Nova Scotia, which should be able to survive with this kind of temperature.”

Drover said the utility's equipment is designed to withstand cold temperatures “in excess of -20 C.” Environment Canada reported that Halifax was as cold as -25.6 C Friday without the wind chill.

He said the utility will analyze the equipment that was overloaded and take lessons from this outage and plan improvements.

Last week, Nova Scotia's utility regulator approved a Nova Scotia Power rate hike of 14 per cent over two years. The Ecology Action Centre was involved with the stakeholder settlement agreement tied to the hearing.

Thompson said it’s important that improvements are made to ensure the grid is resilient because climate change will continue to result in more frequent extreme weather events, like hurricanes, cold snaps and storms.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6, 2023.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press