5 years after DarkNL, something similar could happen again, critic says

One critic says Newfoundland could lose power in a post-Muskrat Falls system — this time, for 'weeks and weeks.'

Without solid backup plan, cold spells could lead to island losing power 'for weeks and weeks'

Critic Ron Penney said there have been improvements to the system, but he's still relieved to own a personal generator. (CBC)

Five years after a power failure that left tens of thousands across Newfoundland in the dark for days, a critic says not enough has been done to ensure it won't happen again.

Ron Penney, chair of the Muskrat Falls Concerned Citizens Coalition, said a review from analyst firm Liberty Consulting "expressed concerns about the reliability of the system, particularly when we get into the coldest nights."

The Public Utilities Board saw that report, but the board is still deciding how to proceed, leaving Penney nervous about the system's integrity.

Even the arrival of power from Muskrat Falls will do little to assuage his concerns about a widespread outage happening again, Penney said.

"The problem with Muskrat Falls, it's a very long extension cord," he said.

"The source of power, particularly for the Avalon Peninsula ... is a long distance away. If we lose that, we're not talking about DarkNL. We're talking about something much more serious.

"We could lose power for weeks and weeks."

Signs of improvement


It's not all doom and gloom, he said, pointing out that a change of leadership at Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro led to a system that "seems to be running quite well now."

But the latest review, he added, showed that the system hadn't been properly maintained — and he's still waiting on the PUB to say how it will bolster the reliability of transmission lines, especially those coming from the northern peninsula.

"Of course, we do have some advantages we didn't have at the time" he says of the 2014 outage, such as the Maritime Link project that began transporting power from Nova Scotia last winter.

But supremely harsh weather would stress even the mainland supply.

Relatives scrambled to help residents of the Cambridge Estates personal care home in St. John's during the prolonged power outage that came to be known as #DarkNL. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

That possibility makes the PUB's response to the review urgent, he said.

Penney added he's been asking about when it might arrive, but hasn't yet been told a date.

"They've been busy, but I think it's important that we we know what the recommendations are going to be and the reliability of the system post-Muskrat Falls," he said.

In the meantime, Penney bought himself a propane-powered generator, just in case darkness again descends on the island.

DarkNL a 'crisis'

In 2014, the outage came with no "advance warning," and Penney believes there still aren't enough fail-safes to ensure a steady power supply.

The impact of the mass outage rippled further than just ensuring a cold and miserable few days, Penney said, referring to the fact that a man died of carbon monoxide poisoning after using a generator in his shed.

A slow response to the outage at the time eventually led to then-Premier Kathy Dunderdale resigning, Penney said. 

"She said it wasn't a crisis. But it was."

System 'performing well'

Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro said in a statement that it is "committed to providing safe, reliable electricity supply" and it is "in a good position to do just that through this winter."

The operator said the system "performed well" through storms and temperatures so far.

"There is approximately 2,100 MW of capacity available, including additional electricity we are receiving each day via the Labrador Island Link," the statement said. "With a forecast peak for this winter of about 1,800 MW, we are well prepared to meet customer demand."

Back-up costly

Penney suspects the PUB review, once it's released, will recommend a back-up source of power for the Avalon Peninsula.

The aging generating station at Holyrood could fill that role once Muskrat Falls is up and running. But once it's gone, Penney said a new system will need to replace it — and it could get pricey.

"It'll probably be gas turbines and that kind of system. But we're talking about, it could be seven or eight hundred million dollars more," he said.

"That's a big problem down the road."


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With files from Mark Quinn