Newfoundland Power says it has a handle on what's working and what's not, as the Public Utilities Board begins its review of the island's power system.

The PUB announced the formal inquiry in the wake of widespread outages in early January that left almost 200,000 customers without heat and light for several days.

It happened in the midst of a severe winter storm and frigid temperatures island-wide.

Newfoundland Power says it ran into difficulty once it began rotating power outages, and the extra generation that was needed to bring customers back online, referred to as a "cold-load pickup."

"Bringing [a feeder line[ back on is hard," told Karen McCarthy, the utility's manager of corporate affairs and communications, to CBC Radio's On The Go host Ted Blades.

"The demand can be as much as double what it was before it went down, just to bring it back up. You can't just turn one off and turn another on. To turn one on, you have to turn two off, if you will."

McCarthy noted during normal operation, people use power sporadically, which creates a balanced and predictable demand.

During the blackouts in January, however, large pockets of customers were being re-connected at the same time.

McCarthy said the company is looking into the possibility of "sectionalizing" the bigger feeder lines, so they're not overloaded when they flick the switch.

"That would involve installing equipment that allows us to bring back portions of power on that one given feeder. So, not having to deal with the whole line at once."

McCarthy said Newfoundland Power also knows it must improve communications with its 255,000 residential and commercial customers.

Website deluge

She acknowledged the utility's website couldn't handle the demand for information during the several days of power rationing in early January.

"We had one-million site visits to our outages page, from people desperately looking for when they were going to be on or off, and we had two occasions where the site went down. It was down for about an hour in total, but that's not good enough."

By comparison, the Newfoundland Power page had about the same number of hits for all of 2013.

"So whatever can be done to help improve that from a bandwidth perspective, or whatever the other technical fixes are for the website, is something that we'll definitely be looking at."

McCarthy said the company's phone system is also in need of an upgrade, adding "it's something we've attempted to improve over time, but we're still not there."

Aside from technical glitches and recurring busy signals, she said an additional 40 staff were trained to help field the roughly 150,000 calls received during the January outages — and that was on top of the 40 staff already working the phones.

"So it's certainly not a matter of the number of people that are available to answer the calls. That isn't an issue. But we will be looking at our telephone capacity as we move forward." 

McCarthy also spoke candidly about the relationship with Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, noting they've often turned to Newfoundland Power for backup power from its smaller hydro-based generating units.

"During the winter, it's not abnormal for Hydro to call us and ask us to turn on a couple of our units ... maybe because it's going to be a colder night. So rather than have them crank up Holyrood, which we know is costly and dirty, we turn on some of our units and help them out."

The difference lately, she said, is Newfoundland Power has been asked to do that a lot more. McCarthy said that's caused the company to consider storing water for generation, as a backup, instead of letting it run through its units.

'Off-peak metering'

McCarthy was also asked if Newfoundland Power would consider so-called "off-peak" metering, which is used in Ontario. In that province, people with smart meters are rewarded for using less power during peak periods. For example, the rate is 12.9 cents a kilowatt hour during peak periods, 10.9 cents during mid-peak and 7.2 cents during off-peak times.

McCarthy said a pilot project involving about 250 homes is underway to see if such a program would work here.

"But to be quite frank, all of the education efforts that utilities have done in this province, along with governments and other organizations over the last five or six years, could never have equated to the amount of public education that was done during those few days in January. People's eyes were really opened up. And that's a very good thing. But we need to keep it going, that energy conservation theme."