Yukoners must be prepared, and patient

Sometimes repairs take time. However, living in an age of high speed and high expectations, people aren’t used to waiting.

Sometimes repairs take time.

However, living in an age of high speed and high expectations, people aren’t used to waiting.

Especially for electricity.

“We’re in an automated push-button world,” said Doug Caldwell, spokesperson for the Yukon government’s Emergency Measures Organization.

“The expectation, proven from history, is that these power failures don’t really last all that long.”

Most power outages only last for about an hour, he said. The last time the Yukon experienced such an extreme power loss was 10 or 15 years ago.

As one hour turns to two, to five, people assume the power will be back on any minute, he said.

That can’t always happen.

“We’re fortunate that it was just a small little cable,” he said, referring to the faulty cable at the Aishihik dam that caused the hydroelectric generators on the Whitehorse-Aishihik-Faro grid to shut down a week ago Sunday.

“What if there was an earthquake and a couple of spans of wire got broken?”

The government is satisfied with how Yukon Energy responded to the blackout, said Archie Lang, minister of Energy, Mines and Resources.

When the lights went down, crews were immediately dispatched and fixed the problem as quickly as possible.

“It’s a complete inconvenience because we’re slaves to electricity,” said Lang in a recent interview.

“But, at the end of the day, the corporation does a tremendous job getting power to us on a 24-hour-a-day basis, through snow, sleet, 60-below weather, 90-above weather.”

Lang said he could not speak in detail about how Yukon Energy handled the outage until he received a report from the Crown corporation.

He expects the report to be complete soon, possibly by the end of this week.

Yukon Energy spokesperson, Janet Patterson, gave a chronology of the events that led Yukoners to reach for their flashlights.

Early Sunday afternoon a cable at the Aishihik station broke, causing a cascade of failures down the grid.

The generators at Aishihik and Whitehorse shut down, as well as the transformer at the Takhini station.

At 1:32 p.m. the power supply was cut.

“At that point our guys were not sure exactly where the problem originated,” said Patterson.

Usually, the fourth wheel, the most powerful hydro generator at the Whitehorse dam, would have been put into action.

But a worker heard a strange sound in the turbine, so the unit had to be checked out before it could be put to use.

Meanwhile, workers were tasked with getting two of the smaller turbines to pump out power.

“These smaller generators are not designed to pick up large chunks of load at once,” said Patterson.

“Around 2 p.m. they had these units on, but there was too much load for the units, so the units turned themselves off again.”

When the two generators shut down, the gate that allows water into the power generation section of the plant, automatically closed.

“Then we had to get people out there to manually open those head gates again,” said Patterson.

It took about 30 minutes to open the two head gates, she added.

In the meantime, water was building up in Schwatka Lake.

Crew members had to open the spill gates because water was coming into the dam with no way out.

Dealing with the extra flow of water took about an hour, Patterson added.

Just before 4 p.m. the wheels started moving forward.

One of the smaller Whitehorse turbines was chugging out electricity and the powerful fourth wheel was given a clean bill for operation.

“It was at that point we could start picking up load and putting people back on power,” said Patterson.

Then, Whitehorse’s seven diesel generators were kicked into action.

Why did it take so long to bring the back-up generators on line?

“The way that diesels are designed they can’t pick up load themselves,” said Patterson.

“You have to bring (some load) on with the hydro then transfer it to the diesel. It’s just the way they’re built.”

An hour later, at about 5 p.m., another hydro unit at Whitehorse was working to light up the southern Yukon.

By late suppertime, all seven diesel and three hydro units at the Whitehorse dam were spinning water energy into electricity.

Diesel generators in Faro and Ross River were also running to spark the grid.

“With everything that was going there was no way it could have been back on in two hours,” said Patterson.

People need to hash out a plan for power failures, said Caldwell.

“One of the things we’re trying to reinforce is that people have the capacity to be self-reliant for a little while.

“It’s vitally important.”

Emergency measures were being taken behind the scenes, out of public view.

“In the background, you don’t see what’s going on. But emergency measure was working with Emergency Health and Social Services and Education, identifying schools that were ready for mass housing, working on transportation options to start moving people to these places,” said Caldwell.

“But we do it quietly in the background. We don’t make a whole lot of noise about it until we’re ready to implement it. Because if we do it out front, and make a lot of noise, panic tends to build,” he said, noting there was a wide range of public reactions to the blackout.

 For example, it didn’t stop the curtain from rising on the production of Peter and the Wolf at the Yukon Arts Centre.

“We have to recognize the spectrum of people and how they were impacted,” said Caldwell.

“For a lot of people it was nothing, it was a walk in the park . . . . For some people they were very, very concerned.”

All agencies that responded to the outage are currently drawing up reports.

“We analyze what happened at what time,” said Caldwell.

“Was it the right thing to do? What can we do to make things better?”