Which type of Power are we Talking About?

To not term the recent situation involving our electrical generation and transmission system a crisis is to completely misunderstand the term, or, as is more likely the case, to resort to ad-hoc definitions (probably “shit hitting the fan and the entire province sinking into the Atlantic”—of course it isn’t. We lost the frigging power for a few days; that’s all) in an attempt to re-frame a complex issue that is at once, technical, economic and social as purely political.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines it in various ways but as it applies to the current situation in NL the best fit is the one labeled 3a in the dictionary’s online version:  “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending; especially:  one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome.” In short; now is a crisis because we can either act as if we have no problem or, instead, learn some lessons from this and act accordingly.

Let’s lay it out in straightforward terms:

  • Last year, through the sudden unexpected loss of generation capacity, it became obvious that Holyrood was, at best, fragile and that serious work needed to be done. A huge melt-down required an enormous capital investment to correct and, at the same time, we all had the opportunity to gain heightened awareness of the simple fact that the few aging generators were just gasping along. This should have been followed by a large-scale system review intended to determine whether the aging equipment had what it takes to last until Muskrat comes online. That never happened.
  • A substation fire—not an unknown event—triggered catastrophic loss in power to the Island grid. Again not completely unexpected, especially given the weather conditions at the time. It should not have happened, of course, but an electrical system is as complex as it gets and sometimes things get out of control and all you can do is shut down and bring the system back up one piece at a time. As far as I know that’s what happened.
  • All customers were asked to conserve and, in fairness to SOME, it did happen a bit. Overall, though, for most businesses and homeowners who did have power or get it back, it was business as usual. “Not My Problem” was the overwhelming response as businesses stayed open, dryers, ovens and heating systems stayed on as if nothing was wrong. Hydro and NL-Power, faced with more load than it could supply had to begin rationing. Even then not customers did not ‘got it’, not then, anyway.
  • The tired horse that is Holyrood, it’s switching and substation system could take no more. In a series of unplanned events the power started failing again. At this point the authorities and customers finally realized the scope of the problem and the complaints and accusations began, as well as the assertion that this was not a crisis.
  • From this point the whole thing became a game as all sides: government, opposition, amateur politicians and anyone with an axe to grind just started having at it over the term “crisis” instead of working toward an intelligent response.

Well, sitting here on the couch, with a pan of bread dough on the rise out in the kitchen and smarting from OH’s assertion that I am “Crazy! You know the power could go at any time and then what a mess you’ll have,” I feel inclined to defend myself while at the same time expressing my deep frustration.

This IS a crisis in the sense that, once again it has been demonstrated that we have an issue that can potentially get a lot worse if the right steps are not taken. It is NOT a crisis in that we are not guaranteed to face oblivion. Come on—like I said, we lost the power for a few days in the middle of some very out-of-the-ordinary weather. But to see it as just that is to be near sighted indeed.

Here’s how I see it: We have now been handed two significant events that clearly demonstrate that the Island portion of the electrical grid is likely too fragile to give proper service to bridge us until Muskrat comes online. This is in no way to suggest that we should so anything stupid like forgetting that project—it is, after all, our best bet for sustainable energy, given the amount of work that’s been done to date and to abandon it now and seek alternatives. Counting the money that’s been spent—and we must—Muskrat is now the cheapest choice we have for long term energy.

So get on with it; bring the new hydro development online forthwith.

That said, though, the present attitude toward the existing infrastructure seems to be one of “do the minimal; run it to the dirt so that by the time Muskrat is ready, Holyrood is well and truly worn out.” Sure that policy—if it were true—would make some sense at some boardroom level. At the home and business level, though, here’s what it means: guaranteed power losses to accompany every bit of inclement weather over the next 7-10 years and, in turn, lost economic opportunities as customers forego this suddenly “third world destination” (at least as far an energy is concerned) and, just as importantly, loss of fellow “livyers” as still more of our family, neighbors and friends say, “enough—we’re leaving.”

So, there it is: crisis; a time to reassess. Will we all just sit here in our homes and places of work content to be subjected to less-than-adequate electrical energy for the next 7-10 years but buoyed by endless streams of encouraging “hash tag conserve NL” on social media or are we going to do something about it and ensure that, while we wait for better things, we also ensure that our present days are no worse that our past ones?

I’m currently reading “Things that Matter” by Charles Krauthammer. In one of the articles he mentions that those that ration have the ability to control others and goes on to say that in our time, perhaps energy is the most strategic thing of all to withhold. How coincidental that I found myself reading this in the midst of rolling blackouts, not that I’m given to silly conspiracy theories. Now, passive aggression is one thing I do see a lot, mind you.


About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
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5 Responses to Which type of Power are we Talking About?

  1. Public revolt … obviously it’s the only option. The public should withdraw from the established (poorly maintained) grid and establish a public (wind or hydro) electrical cooperative. All you need is a couple of ‘fat cat’ investors from down south. Why didn’t you think of that? D

    • The problem we face here runs very deep. First, unfortunately, we seem to have something of a “new tradition” (since we joined Canada in 1949, that is) of expecting big momma/papa government to come in and fix everything for us. Sad, really, because this province (once a country) was largely built IN SPITE of governments by hardy people who cooperated around real issues rather than standing around boardrooms discussing them, with the real intention of getting filthy rich feeding off the public tit in so-called fixing them
      Now, if that weren’t bad enough, we have a government-owned and controlled energy monopoly in the province. Worse again the higher-ups in both private industry and in government–the real power brokers–are fully in control of this thing, and not the people it is supposed to serve.
      Alas the current situation has those of us paying the energy bills totally hostage to a group of “power hungry” (pun intended) powerful people intent on building a new hydroelectric facility at Muskrat Falls Labrador; a project in which many of them will get richer. Yes, it will work and will generate loads of power. Yes, they will get rich and even more powerful in the bargain and yes, people like me who currently pay approximately $0.11 per kilowatt – hour will pay a lot more.
      I have heard projections by the proponents that it might climb to $0.17 over the next five years but you know what that really means. Sort of a bait and switch that every shady retailer plays out–you know say it will go up a bit just so they can play you for what’s really about to happen. That hike to seventeen cents assumes that the 7 billion dollar development will see no overruns. NO OVERRUNS! Since WHEN is any publicly funded project completed on budget!!!!! I estimate they are under by 30% and, so assume that the same is true about the energy hike. Frankly, by the time the project is finished I expect to be paying around $0.26 per kilowatt hour. Since do not work in the energy sector–and therefore do not make big dollars–I have no idea of how I will be able to afford it.
      But in the meantime, my big concern is that the current power brokers are so fixated on the new development that they are letting the current system just fall down…perhaps to make us really appreciate the new expensive one, or perhaps they are too blinded by the new vision and by their own personal ambitions, who knows, like I said I am not given to conspiracy theories.

  2. You’ve written about the govt energy monopoly before haven’t you? Either as a comment on one of mine, or a post on here, can’t remember which. We are due a new power station here too. Our costs are expensive, but as we haven’t used the heater for a few years (toughening up in old age), the fan belt on the very old tumble dryer went and I haven’t replaced it, our only major costs now are the cooker,fridge and the water heater. Electricity is the major power source in Gib. No mains gas, and only bars/restaurants tend to have butano (bottled gas). In Spain we use butano.

    We are in a very different climate to you though (stating the obvious or what) so surely power is a major issue that needs resolving. Of course, that’s why the govt and/or big busiiness want to resolve it for you …. Not sure what our cost per kwh is, must look.

    • I have double glazed windows, 6″ studs packed with R-20 fibreglass insulation, 30 cm of insulation in the ceilings and the house is wrapped twice. That’s standard here. I also conserve in all the normal ways. Still my annual electricity bill is around $3600, most of which goes to heat the house from Late October to May. Now I have to deal with an unstable electricity grid, managed by a blinkered government whose sights are set on a yet-undeveloped hydro facility that will see my bills increase at least 40% within 5 years and I am estimating it will be more like 100 to 120%. Yes I am frustrated.

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