Thursday, June 13, 2024

Where’s the juice?

The recent power outage and communications failure in upper Pontiac during the coldest time of the year should serve as a wake-up call for Hydro Quebec and policymakers.
Residents of L’Isle-aux-Allumettes, Chichester, Sheenboro, Waltham and Mansfield were stuck for hours without power or communications. In many cases, people could neither heat their homes nor call for emergency services, if required. As many have pointed out, we were lucky that no human tragedy resulted from the outage.
It used to be that home phones would continue to work right through a power outage. No more. With the installation of new fibre they are now tied to both electric and internet infrastructure, meaning that if those systems fail, phones do too. This, compounded with the notorious lack of cell service in the region, is a recipe for disaster in the event someone is unable to contact emergency services.
With the frequency of power outages in the area, authorities can no longer use phrases like “unexpected” or “beyond our control” to deflect responsibility. While mistakes and technical failures happen, it’s hard not to wonder to what extent these problems stem from neglect.
Infrastructure in the upper Pontiac, whether related to electricity or telecommunications, needs immediate investment in order to meet bare minimum security standards for residents.
Hydro Quebec’s problems are not just related to the upper Pontiac. Other areas – particularly those not part of the same grid as the hospital – frequently experience power outages.
We’ve heard a number of stories of new homes and businesses waiting for months to be hooked up to the grid, and of crews having to come from as far away as Maniwaki to cut off power to burning buildings.
Partly due to Quebec’s overabundance of hydroelectric sources and public ownership model, Hydro Quebec provides the cheapest power rates in Canada by a good margin. But it appears we might be getting exactly what we pay for. It would be interesting to know how much of Quebec’s famously low hydro rates stems from political fear over rate increases necessary for maintenance and investment.
And while we’re talking about costs, let’s keep in mind the expense some of us incur to buy and operate our own generators to compensate for the obvious unreliability of the public utility.
Climate change and the investment required to counter it present an opportunity to rebuild our energy grid in a sustainable and reliable way. While the electrification of cars and heating will put greater demands on the grid, fighting climate change can also lead to an expansion of green sources of electricity. It gives us a reason to invest in strategies like insulating buildings to prevent waste and bring down total energy consumption. We can even look at new ownership models of energy production to ensure those who maintain infrastructure are genuinely accountable to the public.
Whatever the solutions, it is obvious they need to be implemented sooner rather than later. Otherwise, we may experience tragedies that we can clearly see coming.

Brett Thoms


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