power failure haunts utilitys future plans

On January 29, a generator failure at the Aishihik Hydro Plant plunged the southeast Yukon into darkness.

On January 29, a generator failure at the Aishihik Hydro Plant plunged the southeast Yukon into darkness.

For some, it was more than 11 hours before the power was restored.

Coming in the depths of winter on one of the coldest days of the year, it rattled people.

Staffers at the Crown-owned Yukon Energy Corporation eventually got the system back online.

And, in the aftermath, officials insisted everything worked according to plan.

But questions remain.

According to the utility, the Whitehorse-Aishihik-Faro grid currently produces more than enough power to meet the needs of residential customers.

Yet the collapse of that single Aishihik generator brought down the system. And it took more than 11 hours to restore it.

This remains troubling.

In total, Aishihik’s two generators produce 30 megawatts of power.

One collapsed.

In Whitehorse, there are three diesel generators that, combined, can produce more than 11 megawatts of power. That’s almost enough to compensate for the loss of half of Aishihik’s production.

So what happened in January? Why did it take so long to restore power?

Where was the screwup?

The diesels are expensive to operate, so the utility relies on its hydro facilities. Yukon Energy has mothballed the diesels, keeping them for emergency backup.

However, it took the utility many hours to fire those diesels up and bring the system back online.

Why?

At the time, Yukon Energy officials insisted that, “when needed, (the diesels) operated as they should have.”

The assertion seemed suspect then. It still does today.

Last Friday, Yukon Energy announced a summer consultation on its 20-year plan.

It intends to spend more than $45 million refurbishing the electrical grid.

As part of that plan, it wants the 35-year-old Merlee diesels refurbished at a cost of $6.3 million.

That, alone, suggests the reliability of the territory’s backup power system is far less secure than officials are letting on.

“This system needs some investment, pure and simple,” said Yukon Energy chief executive officer David Morrison.

“We need to be able to lose a component (of our system) and still meet the load of all our customers.”

Again, that’s a troubling statement.

In January, we were assured the system worked as it was supposed to.

Clearly it didn’t.

This place gets cold in the winter — maintaining the electrical supply is a serious business.

It must be foolproof.

It’s not.

Since January, there has been no adequate explanation why it took so long to restore power.

And, despite the lack of power-sucking heavy industry on the grid, the electrical system has been noticeably spotty all summer.

There are frequent interruptions, fluctuations and, just the other week, another blackout set clock radios blinking.

Clearly, the system needs refurbishing.

We welcome the 20-year plan.

But it’s unfortunate the utility is holding its public consultation in the summer.

People are distracted and busy.

And this is one review process that deserves the public’s full attention. (RM).