NB Power likely blew its storm damage budget — and it's not even winter
Tens of thousands of NB Power customers lost electricity in the last two weeks
NB Power has not provided information on costs yet, but three straight outage events in the last two weeks have pillaged the utility's modest $2.7-million storm damage budget for the year even though months of dangerous winter weather are still to come.
NB Power has been hopeful that four years of heavy spending on tree trimming along its lines would help contain outages this year and, in part, budgeted on that optimism
Just two weeks ago, NB Power president Gaëtan Thomas declared the power grid more robust and storm-resistant than ever.
"We have invested in better forecasting technology and have storm-hardened a great deal of our infrastructure in many areas of the province," Thomas said on Nov. 2, the start of the province's ironically timed Storm Preparedness Week.
But three windstorms and three big outages later — including the province's third worst blackout of all time — it is clear problems remain.
'It's been trying to say the least'
On Wednesday, more than 20,000 NB Power customers in several locations were hit with power outages. That's after more than 8,000 went dark on the weekend and more than 100,000 lost power the weekend before — all during high wind events.
"It's been a long stretch of wind and trees making contacts with lines since Nov. 3," NB Power spokesperson Marc Belliveau said Wednesday.
"It's been trying to say the least."
Last week, Thomas said NB Power is four years into a seven-year plan to clear whole trees, limbs and other brush along the 600,000 poles and 21,000 kilometres of wires in its distribution network to try to lessen the frequency and duration of outages.
"It will take a couple of more years to really finish the whole tree-trimming program," Thomas said.
NB Power customers have noticed the extra work but still continue to experience outages.
Jen Hudson, who lives with her family in Mundleville near Rexton, lost power last week for several days during the first outage even though extensive preventive work was done in her area earlier this year.
"We were actually quite impressed by the tree clearing this spring and summer," Hudson told CBC News as she began her sixth day without electricity.
"They did a lot along the lines here in front of my house and beyond."
Outages did not used to be such a stubborn problem.
From 2005 and 2013, NB Power spent an average of $2.1 million a year on storm costs. But in the five years since, that has ballooned to an average of more than $14 million a year.
Despite that recent experience, the budget for storm costs this year was set at $2.7 million, more in line with earlier, gentler days.
And although the utility has not yet responded to questions about how much of that is left following the recent blackouts, based on previous events, the answer is almost certainly none.
Similarities to 2014 ice storm
The largest of the recent outages, which began Nov. 3, left 104,000 NB Power customers without electricity at its peak and took 300 crews six days to fully resolve.
That has some similarities to New Year's 2014, when NB Power fought ice storm outages affecting 88,000 customers over 11 days with 262 restoration crews.
The bill for that event and the subsequent cleanup eventually topped $12 million.
NB Power still has 20 weeks left in its fiscal year — most of that during hard winter months, and Belliveau already has his fingers crossed that the snowstorm and high winds forecast for Friday do not materialize.
"Sometimes weather systems will change and we're certainly hoping that is the case," he said.