Hydro-Québec searches for ways to limit the use of rolling power outages

By Michael Boriero - Local Journalism Initiative

With power outages constantly overwhelming the Eastern Townships this winter, especially in Brome-Missisquoi, Hydro-Québec has started to take steps towards upgrading its transmission system in the region.

One municipality hit particularly hard was West Bolton. Residents lived through extended blackout periods throughout a bitter and unforgiving winter season. It has led to a public outcry demanding better electrical services and a study into the reasons behind the blackouts.

According to Caroline Des Rosiers, a spokesperson for Hydro-Québec, the situation in West Bolton was a combination of a series of unfortunate events. While conducting a rolling power outage in the area, Mother Nature decided to disrupt the routine procedure, she explained.

“What happened in that particular area, unfortunately, at the same time as this outage that was provoked, a tree fell on the line, so that caused the outage to be much longer than what was anticipated and what was planned,” Des Rosiers said in a phone interview.

She told Brome County News that rolling power outages are cyclical in the region, and they’re only triggered during extreme weather forecasts to alleviate pressure on power lines. Des Rosiers said that normally they last about 15 minutes and then it switches to another line.

A rolling power outage is done, in short, to avoid overloading the power system, which could lead to a widespread blackout. In this case, however, it accidentally put an entire municipality in the dark for an extended period of time. This specific situation happened twice in January.

When a tree falls onto a power line, it requires on-site intervention, Des Rosiers continued. In those instances, Hydro-Québec needs to send a team to evaluate the damage, find and identify the problem, and in the case of West Bolton, remove the tree and repair the line.

“In the short term, we will be working on the vegetation control around a few lines in that area, so cutting trees, branches and making sure that there aren’t any big trees that can fall on the conductors because that is a big cause of outages, especially in rural areas,” she said.

Vegetation control is one way Hydro-Québec has attempted to maintain power lines in the province. But Des Rosiers noted that it can be tough to strike a balance between trimming trees and leaving the natural landscape untouched and free to flourish on its own.

According to Brome Lake Mayor Richard Burcombe, when heavy winds struck Quebec in December, Knowlton experienced the full weight that a tree can have on the town’s electrical power grid, after a large white pine toppled over on Victoria Street causing a blackout.

“As far as the whole tree thing goes, I mean, these aren’t branches that fall on the lines that break them. Eight or nine out of the 10 last power outages, one was due to an accident, eight out of 10 were due to trees in high winds,” said Burcombe.

The mayor has resorted to purchasing an external power generator in the event of a tree knocking down a power line, which has become inevitable at this point, he told Brome County News. But, he noted, Hydro-Québec has been actively trying to solve the power issue.

“They’re working with the town. They’ve made certain corrections, according to them. I’m not really sure myself what they were, I’ve seen things, but I’m not sure if that’s what it was for. In a couple of weeks we’ll be having a meeting with them and they’ll give an update,” he said.

Although trees remain one of the biggest power line disruptors, and a nightmare during periods of high wind, Des Rosiers said the most pressing issue lies in an outdated transmission network in the Eastern Townships. The goal is to no longer use rolling power outages.

Des Rosiers explained that the region’s network was established between 1919 and 1969. A few sections of the network are over 100 years old, she shared. The power lines are also overloaded due to a surge of Quebecers moving to the Townships during the pandemic.

“In order for us to meet this growth in demand, we need to modernize our transmission system,” said Des Rosiers. “In the coming years, we’ll be putting forward a few projects in different parts of the Eastern Townships […] to be able to meet the growth in demand.”

Hydro-Québec has explored several options, including renovating one of the Magog substations to accommodate the power load from the Austin substation, which is nearing the end of its life, according to Des Rosiers. The Magog network would be more reliable, she said.

“There’s already engineering work going on, but we’ll begin this summer 2022 and continue in 2023,” said Des Rosiers, adding that the public utility company will continue to send in teams to monitor the vegetation growth throughout the entire province every day.

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