Rolling blackouts as power use surpasses supply

Ashley
Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Problems at Holyrood, unavailable generators, push island system past limit

An early winter cold snap, trouble at the Holyrood power plant and two unavailable backup generators led to rolling blackouts in Newfoundland Thursday night.

The Holyrood power generating station. Nalcor has been increasing its spending in its quest to keep the province’s energy facilities in good running order. — Telegram file photo

The result was no lights inside chilled homes, with traffic snarls outside, accidents and reports

of people getting trapped in

elevators in St. John’s office buildings.

The purposeful power outages started about 4 p.m., as the island grid began to hit one of two periods of peak energy usage for the day.

The peaks in energy demand typically run daily from 7-10 a.m. as people wake up and prepare for the day, and 4-8 p.m. as large numbers of people get home from work, make dinner, turn on the lights and turn up the heat.

Blackouts became necessary as there was more demand for power than there was power to be supplied.

The outages are likely to be necessary again during the peak period this morning, according to Newfoundland Power and Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.

 

The root of the problem

The problem started with unexpectedly cold temperatures.

“We’ve had a very cold December,” said Dawn Dalley, vice-president of corporate relations with Nalcor Energy.

Nalcor is the parent company of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.

“We hit a system peak on Dec. 14 — I think it was 1,496 megawatts. And that was the highest we’ve seen since 2004.”

On Thursday, power usage was 200 megawatts higher than the highest demand recorded for the same day over the last five years, Dalley said.

According to Environment Canada, the temperature in St. John’s moved between -14 C and -17 C, running to -30 C with the windchill. The resulting demand for heat was met with troubles in supply.

As an energy supplier — the main one for Newfoundland Power — Hydro fell short.

To start, one of three generators at the Holyrood power plant, Unit 3, experienced a failure on a fan motor, meaning the unit could not be run at maximum capacity.

It is something Dalley called a “low-probability event.”

“What that means is the unit is still operational, but it’s been de-rated. So rather than be able to generate 150 megawatts, we’re only able to generate 50 (megawatts),” she said.

Hydro also happened to have two backup turbines down for maintenance. The turbines are typically used to deal with peaks in the power demand during the winter.

They are also used when the Holyrood plant is shut down during the summer for maintenance. It means Hydro has to conduct maintenance on the turbines in the “shoulder season” — between the heavy summer and winter demand periods.

“And the Hardwoods (turbines) ... we needed a three-month window for that and the first opportunity started in October,” Dalley said.

The maintenance schedule would have worked out, but the cold came early and cut deep.

 

The response

As the power shortage became apparent, Hydro began with the normal steps. It asked Newfoundland Power to contribute as much generation as it could from its own, smaller turbines. It also asked that utility to see if load from some of its larger, industrial customers might be curtailed.

Hydro asked the same — power generation, with less usage — from Corner Brook Pulp and Paper.

Everyone contributed. “But the load is so high today, we thought it was prudent to make a call to the public to curb (power usage),” Dalley said.

With the decision made, both Newfoundland Power and Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro staff took to traditional and social media in an attempt to get out an immediate call for energy conservation. They asked people to turn off Christmas lights, not wash laundry or dishes during peak demand periods, not use clothes dryers and reduce the temperature in their homes by a degree or two if possible.

Blackouts were still required.

Newfoundland Power spokeswoman Michelle Coughlin said the rolling blackouts are to be employed at peak periods as needed and continue as long as the island’s power demand exceeds its available supply.

“Those power outages are expected to last anywhere from a half-hour to an hour and then we’ll rotate to the next group of customers based on what the demand on the system is,” she said.

Prior to The Telegram’s deadline, some customers were on social media stating their outages were running longer.

 

The fallout begins

Any real security in the system is unlikely to be achieved until Hydro has the capability of producing more power as required.

It is expected to be two to three weeks before Holyrood is back online at 100 per cent and all of Hydro’s backup turbines are available.

That said, temperatures are supposed to warm this afternoon, with the hope being energy demand will drop as temperatures go up.

There is no estimate available yet on the potential costs associated with the outages or, for Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, the repair of the unit at Holyrood.

The cold temperatures also had Hydro Quebec asking its customers to conserve energy in peak periods.

 

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Newfoundland Power, Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, Environment Canada Hydro Quebec

Geographic location: Holyrood

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Recent comments

  • Stan Squires
    January 07, 2014 - 14:41

    I am originally from St.Philips just outside St.John's and im now living in vancouver.I wanted to say that the maintenance on the backup turbines in Holyrood should have been done before winter.This is criminal neglegence on the part of NFLD Hydro.People should protest against this.There is no excuse for it.NFLD HYDRO wants to save money and the people have to pay a heavy price for it.Shame on nfld hydro.

  • oswald stringer
    January 03, 2014 - 15:25

    The Long Hr. plant was planned long before Muskrat Falls was -where was the power for that? Grand Falls paper mill shut down--where did that power go? If this was run by the private sector heads would roll, but instead some of those "wizards" will probably get a bonus for helping Cathy ....

  • sc
    January 03, 2014 - 11:52

    Folks at Nalcor etc. must be totally incompetent or live in their own little worlds. Their argument is that they've been able to provide sufficient electricity in the past so that they couldn't have expected an increase in demand that would overwhelm the electrical infrastructure (such as it is). I would have thought that these 'experts' would have realised that the number of homes has been constantly increasing and each of those homes requires electricity. Simply because something worked in the past doesn't mean it'll continue to fulfill the requirements. Of course the assumption that old technology and antiquated systems will continue to work indefinitely helps explain the lack of maintenance that has caused all the recent mechanical breakdowns. As other people have suggested, who plans to take generators off-line in December and into January? Do these 'experts' not realise that winter is cold and that people will want to stay warm? Welcome to the 3rd world.

  • Paul
    January 03, 2014 - 11:08

    the coincidence is very suggestive...we were not having this particular problem, not able meet capacity, before the Government began selling us the Muskrat Falls project...is anyone surprised that its cold in winter? this year it came a little earlier but its not like that doesn't happen from time to time and for the energy management system to work as if this would not happen is very poor management. sort of like using best case scenarios for oil costs in your budget... is it incompetence? or conspiracy? either is bad.

  • dan
    January 03, 2014 - 10:06

    If the outages were only 30 mins or so we could handle it BUT that was not the case last night. Nalcor AKA Hyrdo and NL Power sent out the wrong messages as many many people lost power for 2 or more hours! Bring on solar and wind generation for the home owner and make Hydro and NL power buy the excess

  • Fool me once
    January 03, 2014 - 09:25

    So Fortis is purchasing all this equity in the US driving down its value and it leaves us to cope with its inability to provide power in the province that spawned it. Guess which stock I'm dumping.

    • John Smith
      January 03, 2014 - 11:21

      Fortis and NL Power have nothing to do with this situation, it is Nalcor and Hydro that caused this...not NL Power...

  • EDfromRED
    January 03, 2014 - 09:19

    What kind of nincompoops do we have in charge of our Energy Strategy who thought it was a sane idea to take generators offline in an historically cold winter!? How can we trust these same people with the multi-billion dollar Muskrat Falls project if they make such obviously foolish decisions?

    • Ken Collis
      January 03, 2014 - 11:33

      Well said. To decide to do routine service power generators during the winter is an indication of what we can expect from the same people making decisions on the billions of OUR dollars for Muskrat.

  • bewildered
    January 03, 2014 - 08:58

    I find it unacceptable that people are being asked to reduce power by the government for basic daily function, when power has yet to be cut from the Christmas lights at the Confederation building! As beautiful as they are, they are not necessary. Lead by example.

  • JJT
    January 03, 2014 - 07:52

    Half an hour to an hour? Our power was off for two hours in the west end last night, and it was off again at around 8:45 this morning and remains off at 9:20.

  • Annoyed
    January 03, 2014 - 07:52

    I totally agree and support the theory or rolling power outages to help reduce the demand on the power system that last between 30 min even up to two hours. However, last night our power was gone for over 6 hours!!!!!! People returning home from work with small children, seniors, were faced with temperatures of -33 with wind chill for over 6 hours!!!!! These homes were all so cold that of course when the power came back on we were forced to turn the heat up even higher then we normally would. Where is NL Powers reasoning here? Some people did not lose their power at all last night, at least be fair and turn everyones power off for the same amount of time, there are people on my street with newborn babies and seniors who were forced to leave their homes last night. Just not good enough!!!!!

    • Chad
      January 03, 2014 - 13:41

      I find it funny how narrow minded people are. You wenr't off for six hours because they decided that was the feeder they wanted to do it to. When the power was off and they tried to turn it back on there was equipment that failed. In some cases equipment in the sub worked but fuses on transformers and on taps blew. The system was designed years ago and everyones homes have been upgraded to 200 Amps and even as high as 600 Amps for residential from 100 amps. Going form oil heat to electric is a strain on the system.

  • doryman
    January 03, 2014 - 07:48

    They already had a couple of years to fix this Holyrood issue.They're not going to convince me that they are short on power and that they need the big sink hole, namely Muskrat Falls.

  • Bob
    January 03, 2014 - 07:34

    I fully understand and support these rotating outages. However what I don't understand is why non-essential services are not shut down. For example, bingo went ahead many places last night as planned! If there is such a crisis, I feel these things should be cancelled.

  • fed up again
    January 03, 2014 - 06:41

    I swear i used more power re-heating my house after being in the cold for 5 hours, than what they saved! Here's an idea...Turn off the streetlights! That should save some energy and not impact much! Just look at the Harbor Arterial...it's always lit up like a runway, and unnecessary.

  • Goose n Gander
    January 03, 2014 - 06:38

    Perhaps the City of St. John's can turn off the Christmas light displays throughout the city and the provincial government can turn off a few lights at Confederation Building....I guess the restrictions are only for the taxpayers!!!!

  • customer
    January 03, 2014 - 06:14

    I understand the fact that we have a cold snap , but what I cant figuer out is we are paying custmers and at the coldest days of the year the cut our power or say , hey its going to be minus 30 today why dont u turn your heat down ..... like what excatly arewe paying for????

  • Maurice E. Adams
    January 03, 2014 - 05:32

    Total island PEAK demand in 2009 was 1,601 MW -- (and averaged about that from 200-2005) so what is the real problem (see DEMAND page at www.vision2041.com --- data source was Nalcor)