New Brunswick

Weather woes push NB Power hydro production to a 30-year low

A combination of too much water in the spring and not enough in the summer, helped sink production at NB Power's river dams to a 30-year low during the first six months of the year — a $30 million to $40 million hit that has the utility struggling to meet its financial targets once again.

The utility's finances face another bleak year after major flood causes generation problems at 7 river dams

Mactaquac Dam is the largest hydro electric generation station in New Brunswick but has struggled to produce power at historical levels this year because of the spring flood. (Trevor Lyons/CBC)

A combination of too much water in the spring and not enough in the summer, helped sink production at NB Power's river dams to a 30-year low during the first six months of the year — a $30 million to $40 million hit that has the utility struggling to meet its financial targets once again.

"The last time NB Power saw hydro generation this low was 1988," said Marc Belliveau, a spokesperson for NB Power, in an email to CBC News, regarding results posted by the utility's seven river dams between April and September.

The utility's second quarter financial statements show it posted a loss of $9 million during the first six months of its current fiscal year — a weak result once again traceable to unfavourable weather events attacking its bottom line.

NB Power operates seven hydroelectric dams including three large ones on the St. John River at Grand Falls, Beechwood and Mactaquac and four smaller ones on the St. Croix, Tobique, Sisson and Nepisiguit rivers.

The network is budgeted to produce more than 2,700 gigawatt hours of electricity a year — about $200 million worth.

It has easily beaten that target most years since 2003, a rare bright spot in the utility's finances over that time.

Spring flood a major problem

But it has been the opposite this year with the dams producing electricity at just 69 per cent of their long-term averages between April and September. That's one of the worst results ever posted.

Problems started in late April with a rapid spring thaw that sent too much water into the river system too quickly and caused record flooding in the lower parts of the St. John River Valley.

NB Power's second quarter financial statements show a loss of $9 million during the first six months of its current fiscal year. (CBC)

The torrent also overwhelmed the capacity of dams to harness the flow and most of the water ran freely through dam spillways, and never touching power producing turbines.  

"Although the province experienced unprecedented spring flooding, the spring runoff started later than usual with high flows over a shorter period of time resulting in lower power production," the utility reported in its first quarter financial results.

Dry weather plays a factor

The problem worsened this summer with unusually dry weather in areas that feed the rivers, including areas like northern New Brunswick. 

"The whole north was dry," said Jill Maepea, a meteorologist with Environment Canada 

"If I were only to take the northern half of the province this summer, they only saw about 65 per cent [of normal precipitation]."

At this point, NB Power can't say this variance from normal is a result of climate change but we are monitoring it to see if a trend develop.- Marc Belliveau, spokesperson for NB Power

Light rains caused low water flows that further cut electricity production from the dams, eroding NB Power's ability to export into the United States throughout the summer — revenue the utility had been counting on.

NB Power has missed its corporate profit targets three years in a row by a combined $200 million and is now significantly below earnings targets this year, which were originally set at $62.3 million.

In its own second quarter financial update earlier this month the province reported it was expecting a $45.6-million reduction in its return on investments this year, "mainly as a result of lower net income being projected by the New Brunswick Power Corporation." 

Most of that lower income is the result of the production problems experienced by the dams.   

NB Power worries over climate change 

NB Power has become increasingly concerned with the impact adverse weather is having on its operations and has been openly blaming climate change for some of its escalating costs and poor results.

Ice storms that hit the province during the 2013 Christmas season followed by post-tropical storm Arthur in 2014 and more ice storms in January 2017 cost the utility a combined $65 million in repairs and cleanup over the last five years.

New Brunswick Finance Minister Ernie Steeves announced the province is projecting a $131.4 million deficit this year, nearly one third of that is caused by lower profits than expected being posted by NB Power. (Philip Drost/CBC)

And although the dip in hydro electric production this spring and summer is potentially the most expensive weather related event to hit NB Power in recent years, Belliveau says the utility does not view it to be in the same category as damaging storms.

"At this point, NB Power can't say this variance from normal is a result of climate change but we are monitoring it to see if a trend develops," he said.    

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.