Nova Scotia

We tracked power outages in Nova Scotia in 2020. Here's what we discovered

A year-long CBC project found there was a power outage every day in 2020. Nova Scotia Power says its outage rates improved compared to the year before.

Nova Scotia Power says it saw improvements in the number and duration of outages in 2020

Jennifer MacKenzie has complained to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board and Nova Scotia Power about electrical problems in Meaghers Grant, N.S., but said there's been no improvement. (Robert Short/CBC)

When Marissa McKean's power goes out, she takes her cellphone to one particular corner of her living room and attempts to open up Nova Scotia Power's website to see what's happening.

It's the only spot in her Meaghers Grant home, about 50 kilometres northeast of Halifax, that has cell service. And sometimes it can take an hour to load up the outage page to look for a cause.

"We're basically cut off from the rest of the world," McKean said. 

For years, CBC Nova Scotia has received complaints from communities across the province about the reliability of the power grid, and told many stories similar to McKean's. 

It's also a popular topic of discussion on social media, with disgruntled customers saying a small gust of wind is enough to take their electricity offline.

A Nova Scotia Power worker is shown on Dec. 10, 2019. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

In 2020, a team of CBC reporters decided to take a look at the bigger picture. We tracked power outages nearly every day of the year — only missing two days on the calendar. 

We discovered unplanned outages every day of the year. Of the outages we recorded, 80 per cent affected at least five customers.

Nova Scotia Power reports outages on an online map. But the outage map doesn't tell the true number of customers taken offline.

It doesn't include those experiencing a second or subsequent outage, or households temporarily taken off the grid by Nova Scotia Power when the company is carrying out restoration work.

A large tree leans across Grand Lake Road, the main highway between Glace Bay and Sydney, in the aftermath of storm Dorian in 2019. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Nova Scotia Power declined to do an interview about CBC's findings and sent a statement instead.

"Our customers expect and deserve, reliable, affordable energy," the utility wrote, as it pointed to the fact that it spends about $100 million a year on upgrades.

It went on to offer examples of its proactive work.

"In heavily treed communities where tree removal isn't feasible, we're adding line covers for added protection against fallen branches."

While CBC tracked outages on every day of the summer, the utility said its performance on so-called blue sky days improved by 15 per cent.

Nova Scotia Power says it spends about $100 million a year doing upgrades and maintenance on the grid. (Robert Short/CBC)

Outages on the CBC's list were spread all over the province. But one thing they had in common was the listed cause on the outage map. On 336 days — or 92 per cent of the time — it was stated as "under investigation."

The utility said that's the cause automatically generated by its system until lines crew arrive on site and determine the cause.

Nova Scotia Power has performance standards, which are set by the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, and was penalized last year after failing to meet some of them.

But the utility said its third-quarter performance standards update showed it was on target for most of them in 2020. The report said the average customer lost power 1.61 times during the first nine months of the year, and the duration was 3.13 hours.

Marissa McKean says she can't find a job that requires working from home because her power is so unstable. (Submitted by Marissa McKean)

There are several "problem circuits" identified in the update, including Upper Musquodoboit, which is near Meaghers Grant. The community lost power three times in the last week of 2020, including one outage that lasted 16 hours for some.

It was eye-opening for McKean, who moved earlier this year from the Halifax-area to the rural community about 45 minutes away.

She knew things would be different than in the city, but she never imagined how frequent power outages would affect her life. 

"I see all these job ads online and they're like you must have a reliable internet connection. So having unreliable power just makes it so much worse."

Lisa Olie says Nova Scotia's high power rates do not match the service, and it's time something is done to fix that. (Submitted by Lisa Olie)

McKean is joining a chorus of people from the area who are demanding better service, including Jennifer MacKenzie, who is at her wit's end.

She's written the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board and Nova Scotia Power in the past, but said there has been no improvement in her service.

"It doesn't make a difference whether I call them or not. I think it's because they have a monopoly. There's nothing I can do about it, I can't go to the next power source."

MacKenzie points out the issue is amplified because of the pandemic. They can no longer drive to a friend's house or restaurant to wait out the outage. 

Lisa Olie, who lives nearby, resorted to spending $4,500 on an insert to her fireplace so she'd have heat when the power goes out. She also spends extra to have a landline so she can be connected when her internet phone goes dead during outages.

All of this, she said, should not be necessary, given how much she pays for electricity.

"I live in HRM and while I don't expect bus service, I certainly expect continuous power supply unless something really untoward happens like White Juan or Hurricane Juan," she said. "Any time the wind blows shouldn't be cause for a power outage anywhere in Nova Scotia."

The three women said they think the utility should be required to perform significant upgrades before the leadership of its parent company, Emera, receive bonuses and dividends are paid to shareholders.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carolyn Ray

Videojournalist

Carolyn Ray is a videojournalist who has reported out of three provinces and two territories, and is now based in Halifax. You can reach her at Carolyn.Ray@cbc.ca

With files from Blair Rhodes

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