01/06/2014 05:23 EST | Updated 03/08/2014 05:59 EST

Newfoundland power outage closes schools, sparks debate

A power outage that is gripping much of Newfoundland moved into its fifth day on Monday, with schools and university classes cancelled, businesses urged to turn off their lights and tough questions facing Premier Kathy Dunderdale.

Some 30,000 households and other Newfoundland Power customers were without power early Monday morning. Newfoundland Power, the private company that distributes energy it buys from Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, said 18,000 of those customers are in the St. John's area, with the rest on the Avalon Peninsula. 

An incident Sunday night at the already-hobbled Holyrood generating station west of St. John's had knocked out power for as many as 100,000 households and businesses.

Hydro said the incident — which involved a massive blow of steam in the plant's switchyard — did not damage any generating equipment, but would take hours for service to be brought back to where it had been.

Even then, the Holyrood plant had been operating at less than 40 per cent capacity, in just one of numerous problems that Hydro, a division of Crown-owned Nalcor Energy, has been dealing with. Nalcor said its aging infrastructure has been struggling to keep up with a growing consumer demand.

NDP Leader Lorraine Michael said a public inquiry should be called through the Public Utilities Board to determine what went wrong in a cascade of problems that saw rolling blackouts start last Thursday, even before a blizzard struck the province and two days before a fire at the Sunnyside substation knocked out power across almost all of the island.

NDP, Liberals insist there's a crisis 

Michael strongly disagreed with Dunderdale, who insisted on Sunday afternoon — before the latest incident at the Holyrood station — that the power outages did not constitute a crisis, but rather a serious challenge.

"The people of the province believe there is a crisis," Michael said.

"I wish the premier would start using the language of the experience of the people of the province.  We have a crisis when we cannot meet peak moments during the year."

Opposition Leader Dwight Ball said Dunderdale's conclusion is wrong.

"This is a crisis, there's no doubt about that," Ball told CBC News.

"Any time that you have to take this kind of generation out of service in January, I would consider that a crisis."

Energy demand passed supply 

Peak demand in Newfoundland last week hit 1720 megawatts, well above historic averages as well as what Hydro — which generates the lion's share of the island's energy — could cope with.

With rolling blackouts still in the cards, officials have made unusual moves. All public schools are closed for Monday and Tuesday, as are Memorial University and most campuses of the College of the North Atlantic. Education institutions in Labrador are not affected by the provincial government's decision.

As well, the Newfoundland and Labrador government will send employees home on Monday at 5 p.m., to ensure the energy demand at government buildings is as low as possible.