Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane Irene and Hydro-Quebec

This post is in the category of "you have to wonder why." You have to wonder why PSNH chose Hydro-Quebec to supplement its own repair crews in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

As soon as PSNH began talking to the public about its preparations for the upcoming Hurricane Irene, it was clear what was Rule #1 in the playbook: tell New Hampshire citizens about the 100 line crews coming from Hydro-Quebec, specifically, to help PSNH's 90 crews with the anticipated repairs. Other utility companies were informing customers that repair help would be contracted from Ohio, Tennessee, and other states. Only PSNH named the actual corporation, Hydro-Quebec, that would redeem us. The reason was obvious enough: this was to be not only a repair operation, but a public relations puff for Northern Pass and its purported benefits to New Hampshire.

On Friday and Saturday, first NHPR, then the Concord Monitor, the Union Leader, the Nashua Telegraph, SeacoastOnline, and others media outlets were all repeating PSNH's sacred mantra that 100 line crews from Hydro Quebec would be on the way to help. Indeed, that was all that some of them reported about PSNH's readiness for the storm: 100 crews from Hydro Quebec would be here to lend a hand. The PSNH press release made its way to the Associated Press, and newspapers as far away as Houston were reassuring us that 100 line crews from Hydro Quebec would be here to help.

Make no mistake, the help itself was not unwelcome. We take HQ spokesperson Patrice Lavoie at face value when he said that “we’re always prepared to lend a helping hand to our neighbours. We consider electricity an essential service.” 100 lines crews would more than double PSNH's available help. No one who has lived without power in the aftermath of a major storm would not be grateful for help like that. Another Northeast Utilities's subsidiary, Connecticut Light & Power, had hoped to get assistance from Quebec too, but as Connecticut's Governor Molloy diplomatically phrased it, "crews that originally [were] supposed to come here from Quebec were diverted to deal with storm damage in other states to Connecticut's north." The New Haven Register put it differently: CL&P had sought help from Hydro-Quebec of Canada, "but [H-Q] directed its crews to help in Northern New England." In New Hampshire, that is.

Aside from the public relations spin, that decision made a limited amount of sense: Quebec is a bit closer to New Hampshire than to Connecticut. But what didn't make sense was that H-Q would provide 100 crews to augment PSNH's 90 crews, more than doubling the indigenous repair force. As it turns out, the figure of 100 crews was erroneous. It was actually 54 crews of two people, or 108 line and other workers. Still, NU's and HQ's decision was that New Hampshire was to receive relatively ample aid, to say the least.

What also did not make sense was that our promised redeemer happens to lie to the north of us and might well find itself in the path of the storm a day later. In fact, that is precisely what happened. Tropical Storm Irene blew its way through New Hampshire Sunday and, veering slightly off predicted track, as such storms are wont to do, hit Quebec, especially Montreal and the Eastern Townships, hard on Sunday night and Monday morning. PSNH had some120,000 customers without power at the height of the storm, but a day later H-Q had 250,000 customers in the dark.

H-Q's Patrice Lavoie had earlier promised that "the 54 teams sent to New Hampshire to help with that state's power outages over the weekend would not affect the provincial utility's ability to restore power in Quebec." Lavoie would eat those words soon enough. What did H-Q do late Sunday or early Monday morning when it realized the extent of outage in its home territory? Exactly what one would expect. It pulled the 54 crews out of New Hampshire and brought them home to work in Quebec.

As Quebec radio station CJAD reported on Monday, the troops were en route home:

Hydro Brings Crews Home

Hydro-Quebec has decided to bring the 108 employees it sent to New Hampshire Sunday back home, to help with the power failures here caused by Tropical Storm Irene yesterday.

The workers are expected back sometime during the day.

They were sent south of the border under a mutual aid agreement between Hydro and Northeast Utilities.

Durham NH was understandably disappointed with H-Q's decision to leave New Hampshire behind:

The PSNH Epping Work Center which services Durham is at this time centering its efforts on restoring a main transmission line along Route 4 which will restore power to areas of Madbury, Lee, Barrington, and Strafford.

Unfortunately, a Hydro-Quebec Power reinforcement caravan routed to the Epping Work Center was recalled to Canada in the early hours of [Monday]morning to address Hurricane Irene damage in Canada. These additional crews from Hydro-Quebec were scheduled to arrive this morning as reinforcement for local work center crews.

But Quebec resident Deborah L. cheered the decision in this comment addressed to Hydro-Quebec:

Way to go, I think you need to fix our problems here before you go elsewhere.

If the "100 crews from Hydro Quebec" is yet another public relations fiasco for PSNH, the solution is simple enough: stop the spin. But the botched episode underscores a deeper and more important truth: Hydro-Quebec is a foreign crown corporation and its first loyalty will necessarily be to the people of Quebec and to their needs, not to Americans, whether it is to supply repair crews or electricity itself. In a drought, with low hydro power, Quebec will get priority, not New England. In an ice storm, with interrupted service, Quebec will get priority, not New England. Deborah L. and Quebec vote for the province's premier, New England does not. This surprises no one who has thought at all about the implications of Northern Pass. Hurricane Irene provides a timely lesson for anyone who has not.

Postscript: Brentwood Fire Chief Kevin Lemoine said on Monday afternoon that so far he was "not impressed" with PSNH's response," reports the Union Leader. "We had a lot more damage in the ice storm and the windstorm. Here we're talking about limbs on wires," Lemoine said. "The last PSNH truck I saw was 9 yesterday morning."

After the Hydro-Quebec 108 u-turned and went home on Monday morning, PSNH was scrambling to bring in more utility help. By then, PSNH noted, there was a "premium" on contracted help: 

PSNH said the problem is the extent of the outages up and down the East Coast. The damage was widespread and has placed a premium on line crew resources, PSNH said. Some 50 crews from Hydro-Quebec were supposed to be on hand to help in New Hampshire, but they had to return to Canada to assist with outages there. The utility has more than 100 of its crews and other contract crews working to restore power. PSNH said 75 additional line crews should arrive Monday afternoon. (Union Leader)


A September 2 follow-up post on Hurricane Irene, PSNH, CL&P, and NU is here.