Extended blackouts that left some Quebecers in the dark for days revealed the province’s lack of preparedness for the upcoming green energy transition, an expert said Wednesday.
The province must improve its infrastructure and emergency planning as Quebec society increasingly substitutes fossil fuels for electricity to meet emissions targets, said Normand Mousseau, scientific director of the Institut de l’énergie Trottier from Polytechnique Montréal, in an interview.
As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 14,000 Hydro-Quebec customers were still without power, about five days after a winter storm hit eastern Canada. The utility outage map showed more than 4,600 customers without power in the Quebec City area, as well as about 2,300 on the North Shore and about 1,800 in Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean.
The long outage “shows how fragile and unprepared we remain,” he said. Mousseau, who is also a physics professor at the University of Montreal, added that the impact of the blackouts will only get worse as the province’s dependence on electricity increases.
“People used to go in their cars to warm up overnight or for a few hours, but when we all have electric cars, we won’t be able to do that anymore,” he said.
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Trottier said Hydro-Quebec should consider a program to gradually bury more of its power lines, when it makes sense to do so. The province should also develop a “real resilience plan” that could include installing high-powered batteries in certain areas to maintain some electricity when power lines go down, he said.
An auditor general’s report released in December found that Hydro-Québec’s service has become less reliable and the provincial crown corporation is not fully equipped to meet the challenges associated with an aging network. The report found that the average duration of outages increased by 63% between 2012 and 2021, when major weather events were excluded.
An $800 million plan launched in 2020 to reduce the number of service disruptions was only partially achieved, the report said.
Hydro-Quebec CEO Sophie Brochu told reporters on Monday that it was extreme weather – not grid weaknesses – that caused hundreds of thousands of Quebecers to lose power during the height of the storm that began in the province on December 23.
“Put on any gear against 120 kilometer winds and we would be in exactly the same situation,” she said.
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The utility, Brochu added, has also launched a program to make up for years of infrastructure undermaintenance, including cutting down trees and other vegetation near transmission lines.
Hydro-Quebec promised the vast majority of customers would have their power back by the end of Wednesday, but it also said it could not provide an end date for all outages.
Mousseau said the auditor general’s report clearly shows that Hydro-Quebec has underinvested in equipment maintenance. He said the utility used cost as an excuse to resist burying power lines. The utility should take the opportunity to bury the lines when streets are open for roadworks, he added.
However, he said the government lacked general crisis mitigation and management strategies that would protect citizens during outages, adding that Hydro-Quebec could not be blamed for the province’s failures.
By way of example, he said, better land use planning could reduce urban sprawl and ensure electrical infrastructure is easier for crews to access; moreover, he said, the Public Security Department could draw up a more detailed plan to provide emergency electricity and heating to people.
He said that it was up to the municipalities, the province and Hydro-Quebec to work together and develop a real strategy to ensure that Quebecers are not left in the dark and the cold.
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