NB Power reinforces lines, changes communications plan before next big storm

January's paralyzing ice storm has prompted NB Power to shore up lines and aim for more accurate time estimates for restoring power, the utility's CEO said Monday.

'We know we can improve,' utility CEO says of response to devastating ice storm

NB Power will begin reinforcing its infrastructure next month to better prepare for storms such as the one that kept the Acadian Peninsula shivering in the dark for days last winter, says CEO Gaëtan Thomas. (CBC)

January's paralyzing ice storm has prompted NB Power to aim for more accurate time estimates for restoring power, the utility's CEO said Monday.

NB Power is also looking for ways to improve grid resilience in vulnerable areas across the province, NB Power president and CEO Gaëtan Thomas said.

"We know we can improve on various aspects, especially with respect to communication and also strengthening the system," Thomas said in an interview on Information Morning Fredericton.

"We're working on these two aspects."

A report on the ice storm released Friday made 51 recommendations to strengthen government's response to natural disasters and emergencies. 

A three-day storm in January coated the Acadian Peninsula in ice. (Jerome Luc Paulin/Twitter)

It recommended NB Power provide customers with worst-case scenarios for restoring power, rather than the constantly missed restoration times experienced after the January storm.

The three-day ice storm knocked out power to about 133,000 homes and businesses, affecting almost 300,000 people at its peak.

Some people were without electricity for 11 days.

The storm also claimed two lives, and 45 people were taken to hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning as they tried to heat their homes with generators or barbecues.

Because there were so many roads that were blocked by poles and trees … it was basically impossible for the first two to three days to access them.-  Gaëtan Thomas, NB Power president

Throughout the storm, Thomas said, the infrastructure in the area was resilient but there were weak spots.

"We have to take into account, when we lose a corner pole or anchored poles at each end, once those anchors are gone … it has a cascading effect," he said.

"There's nothing really holding the rest of the poles … a lot of the poles simply toppled."    

One of the biggest challenges during the major storm, was the lack of access to the area where lines and poles were damaged.

The utility also underestimated the number of poles that were down. More than 600 poles had to be replaced, and 150 transformers and 52 kilometres of distribution lines required repairs.

"Because there were so many roads that were blocked by poles and trees … it was basically impossible for the first two to three days to access them," he said.

The ice storm left broken utility poles and a tangled web of wires. (NB Power/Twitter)

In future storms, he said, NB Power plans to focus on clearing roads quickly, even if there are fewer customers in that particular area. This will allow crews to properly assess the damage right away.

The Canadian Standards Association classifies New Brunswick as a "heavy loading" zone, requiring NB Power to design infrastructure to withstand 12.5 millimetres of ice buildup. The association's most rigorous "severe" rating stipulates 19-millimetre resiliency.

But the Acadian Peninsula saw ice buildup of between 50 and 100 millimetres on trees and equipment, the storm report found.

"We did the very best we could having applied all the lessons learned from the previous storms," Thomas said.

What's being done

This fall, the utility will start reinforcing infrastructure, particularly power lines near the coast, to withstand bigger loads.

Thomas said a lot of work has gone into the transmission system feeding the Acadian Peninsula.

"Our neighbours are not all affected by ice storms of this nature, and they're not near the coast lines, where you have the most impact from the winds," he said.

New designs will have metal crossarms on all transmission poles, instead of wooden crossarms, which are weaker, especially with ice loading.

This fall, NB Power will start reinforcing infrastructure, particularly power lines near the coast, to withstand bigger loads. (Saint John Energy/Twitter)

Thomas said the utility is also staying away from burying power lines. He said burying the lines would not be economical and has caused more problems than good during major storms.

Thomas pointed to Hurricane Sandy, which swept up the East Coast of the United States five years ago. Some areas with buried lines were the last to get power back, especially along the coast, where lines are susceptible to high tides, he said.  

"You could actually have a lot of damage," Thomas said. "The cost and time to fix those underground installations is actually longer than doing the overhead lines."  

Thomas said the utility has been working with the Canadian Electricity Association to review the guidelines to make improvements to the resilience in the grid.

"Our goal is to ensure that we don't have the same areas hit twice," he said.

Long-term perspective

Environmentalist Louise Comeau agreed with the recommendations in the ice storm report but said the review focused on emergency management and lacked a long-term perspective on preparing people and their homes for future storms.

The report identified climate change as the cause of extreme weather events and related health and safety concerns.

But it failed to recommend how emergency centres and homes can be made more energy self-sufficient, said Comeau, the director of the University of New Brunswick's environment and sustainable development research centre.

"How do we transition to a more sustainable energy system because, of course, when we are burning oil and coal and natural gas, we are causing climate change," Comeau said. 

"So more solar, for example, and battery systems in those emergency facilities, so that when the power goes out, and it will, regardless of what we do to the infrastructure, we are self-sufficient."

Environmentalist Louise Comeau says the report on the ice storm failed to recommend how emergency centres and homes can be made more energy self-sufficient. (CBC)

Comeau added that preparing to be self-sufficient for 72 hours is no longer good enough.

After post-tropical storm Arthur three years ago and the ice storm this winter, people should be prepared to have enough food, water and emergency power for at least two weeks, she said.

"Enough capacity to hang on without people arriving to take care of you necessarily is really the kind of planning we need to think about," Comeau said.

She stressed that the role climate change plays in these weather events, and the human impact on climate change, cannot be understated.

While it is impossible to forecast the next big storm, Comeau said, she is 100 per cent certain it will happen.

"We can be sure that we will see more extreme events and that we need to prepare for them," she said.

With files from Information Morning Fredericton, Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon


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