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Maintenance delays among failures that led to Newfoundland power outages: report

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Scheduled maintenance and testing of key equipment was put off before tens of thousands of customers lost power during a cold snap in Newfoundland earlier this year, says a new report.

The interim report Friday by the board of commissioners of the province's public utilities said several failures by Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro led to the widespread outages for eight days in January that at one point left up to 190,000 customers in the dark.

Among them, the report said the utility deferred the scheduled and recommended testing of a transformer and circuit breaker at Sunnyside, which failed. The report also said the utility did not properly execute repairs and lacked "critical" spare parts for its equipment.

"While it is not possible to determine whether the failures and outages of this past winter could have been avoided had different decisions been made by (Newfoundland and Labrador) Hydro, the board finds the number and nature of equipment failures that occurred is unusual," said the report.

Planned rotating outages on the island of Newfoundland started Jan. 2 as electricity demands spiked amid unusually cold temperatures. A public call to conserve energy went out that day before rolling blackouts began.

But massive unplanned blackouts Jan. 4 and 5 were blamed first on a transformer fire and then a separate breaker malfunction that threw the province's thermal power plant in Holyrood offline. Generating equipment that might have helped make up the resulting shortfall was down for maintenance.

The public utilities board announced an inquiry and hearing into the outages in the days after the lights came back on. It plans to release a final report in early 2015 following public hearings.

Another report prepared for the board and released last month by Pennsylvania-based Liberty Consulting Group flagged similar problems and warned of an "unacceptably high risk" of future blackouts.

The report by the public utilities board — which incorporated findings from Liberty and statements from Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro — said the utility has blamed delays in maintenance on higher priority capital work programs and other backlogs in the system. The utility said it's common practice among utilities to defer work, but conceded the risks are greater with aging infrastructure, said the report.

"The board finds Hydro's explanations in relation to its failure to complete the scheduled preventive maintenance and testing to be inadequate," said the report.

The report outlines a series of actions the utility should complete before next winter, including completing outstanding testing and maintenance of equipment, particularly as it moves ahead with the installation of a 100-megawatt combustion generation turbine by December.

"The board has set out significant reporting requirements for Hydro, the first of which are due to be filed on June 2, 2014," said the report. "In addition, the board will be establishing a process, with regular reporting, to monitor Hydro's progress on the priority action items that need to be completed before the upcoming winter."

Utility vice-president Rob Henderson said the company has already started to make progress.

"We are fully committed to taking the necessary actions to ensure the people of the province are not impacted by outages of this nature in the future," he said in a statement.

Derrick Dalley, minister of natural resources, said in a news release the government was reviewing the report.

He also said proposals from consultants were being evaluated as the government pushes ahead with an independent review exploring the management, regulation and operation of the province's energy system that's meant to complement the public utilities board's report.

"Restoring public confidence in the province's electricity system is of utmost importance to our government," said Dalley.

— By Melanie Patten in Halifax.

Follow @melaniepatten on Twitter.

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