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Nova Scotia power utility comes under fire after widespread outage


HALIFAX – Nova Scotia’s electric utility came under fire Thursday after widespread power outages prompted opposition leaders and online critics to call on the government to hold the privately owned company to account.

The entire Atlantic region was swept by outages after a storm churned out strong winds and heavy, wet snow that pulled down power lines, disrupted travel and prompted school closures.

But Nova Scotia was hit particularly hard by the outages, with almost 250,000 homes and businesses _ half of Nova Scotia Power’s customers _ without electricity at one point before noon.

“We pay some of the highest power rates in the country, we expect that power. When it goes out … it needs to come back,” said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston.

The utility, owned by Halifax-based Emera Inc., said the wind and snow pulled down one of four high-voltage transmission lines that carry electricity from three power generation plants in Cape Breton to the Nova Scotia mainland.

Nova Scotia Power CEO Karen Hutt said the remaining three lines could have handled the load, but the sagging wires went offline when they started touching each other.

The problem was compounded shortly afterwards when Crown-owned NB Power was hit by an outage in Memramcook, N.B., where a transmission line links New Brunswick with Nova Scotia.

“That system did the exact same thing that our system did _ it shut down to protect itself,” Hutt said in an interview.

The second outage doubled the number of Nova Scotia Power customers without electricity, bringing the total to over 200,000.

It was the worst power outage the province has endured since hurricane Juan battered the region in September 2003, killing eight people and causing an estimated $100 million in damage.

Nova Scotia NDP Leader Gary Burrill said Thursday’s “fairly run-of-the-mill” storm – Halifax, for example, had virtually no snow – shouldn’t have caused such widespread blackouts.

However, Hutt insisted outages in the Halifax area, which drew heavy criticism online, were the result of particularly nasty weather in northeastern Nova Scotia, followed by the outage in New Brunswick.

“You can’t draw the conclusion that just because you’re in Halifax, you should be shielded from anything happening in other parts of the province,” she said. “There is an awful lot of damage in the northeast of the province. There’s broken poles. There’s trees on wires.”

Still, Burrill called on the government to hold the utility to account.

“It says something pretty serious about grid maintenance as a whole,” Burrill said. “When we have this level of infrastructure grid failure … why wouldn’t any normal person think, ‘Gosh, something is wrong here.”’

Much of the online chatter raised questions about the severity of the storm in Halifax.

“I’m amazed that today’s weather is considered a storm,” said one social media post. “Is there another province in this country that deals with power outages as frequently as N.S.? I’m genuinely asking because this is preposterous.”

When Premier Stephen McNeil was asked how his Liberal government would respond to the outages, he immediately deferred to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, which regulates electric utilities.

“We put in standards around reliability,” he said after a cabinet meeting in Halifax. “At the same time, the regulator will ultimately deal with reliability.”

In New Brunswick, almost 23,000 NB Power customers remained without power early Thursday evening. The majority of the outages were in the southeast of the province, which includes the Memramcook area.

NB Power spokeswoman Sheila Legace said crews had fixed the transmission issue at Memramcook, where the line also feeds Prince Edward Island, which is heavily dependent on power from New Brunswick.

“Both transmission lines to P.E.I. and N.S. have been restored on our end this afternoon,” she said.

Maritime Electric spokesperson Kim Griffin said the Island utility had 40 crews working to restore power and was using “on-Island generation to start to power the Island back on.”

Newfoundland Power also reported multiple outages Thursday.

Thursday’s low-pressure weather system prompted Environment Canada to issue weather warnings for the entire Atlantic region.

Many schools were closed and ferry service between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia was cancelled, and the Confederation Bridge between P.E.I. and Nova Scotia restricted travel.

Flights were cancelled or delayed in Halifax, Charlottetown and St. John’s, N.L.

 

News from Canadian Press Enterprises Inc. © 2018